Tuesday, 15 February 2011

What were we thinking?

If you have a spare hour, there is an audio recording of a recent lecture together with slides that is doing the rounds in the blogosphere. It can be seen here and the PowerPoint slides can be downloaded separately here.

Its thesis is a simple one - we are far too complacent and tolerant of the incredible damage that motor vehicles do; specifically, the number of people they kill every year. We have all read the numbers. Each year it is more people than were killed in the First World War. That is not to single out pedestrians and cyclists of course. It is not about those labels. It is the number of people killed overall, whether in or outside the car. After the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, it was estimated that more people died in motor vehicle accidents than were killed in the attacks directly as a result of choosing to drive instead of flying.

In the 19th century, during the industrial revolution in England, life expectancy for certain areas was appallingly low - as low as 30 in places. It was because of the cholera that people suffered from living effectively in an open sewer. The details are in the lecture. In the 20th century, the big killer was tobacco smoke.

We now live in an age where clean water is available through a tap and we would not dream of asking people to live close to open sewers. Smoking is banned in pubs and restaurants, it is an offence for a person to smoke in their car when children are present and it is probably only a matter of time before it is completely banned in public places. The lecturer makes the following very valid point:

"If you had suggested in 1810, at the very start of the industrial revolution, that in a centuries time the open sewers would have been covered over, fresh water would be piped to houses, Individual latrines built for every property; they would have thought you mad.

If you had suggested too strongly in 1910, just before the First World War made cigarette smoking the national pass-time, that in a century most adults would no longer smoke and it might even be illegal to smoke in any public building; they might have certified you.

If you suggest in 2010 that within a century we will no longer live in towns and villages choked by cars, paving over gardens, even if all cars are electrically powered by batteries recharged from wind-farms; they might accuse you of taking a flight of fantasy."

On that last paragraph, I think it is only a matter of time.

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