Just say it: save lives, drive less

A little less than a year ago, I treated my readers to some thoughts about the Government’s newly published plan for Decarbonising Transport (LTT828, last July); and you may possibly remember that I wasn’t terribly impressed by the fact that Secretary of State for Transport – in both his Foreword and an accompanying video – didn’t communicate any sense of the urgency and difficulty of the challenge at hand.

I fully understand that hard messages are hard to deliver, especially for politicians who are terrified that people won’t vote for them if the message has even a whiff of being ‘anti-car’. And yet, we either do need to decarbonise transport fast, or we don’t. Given that the Government says we do, it urgently needs to be doing more to make that happen than it did on launching the plan - or has done since.

If the Government is serious about climate change being, well, serious, then this ‘doing more’ unquestionably means treating the great British public like grown-ups and talking to us straight.

Because I’m afraid to say, we cannot be nudged into the travel behaviour change that’s needed; we cannot be encouraged into it – in anything like sufficient numbers; and we certainly can’t simply be soothed into it.

This is because the people who need most to change how they travel are those who currently use their cars more than is necessary, and most of these people – for a number of reasons to which no blame need attach – have become car-dependent. For people whose lives are configured around car use, changing how they travel is, as I have previously observed, to change how they live. And that’s a far from simple matter which certainly can’t be done with carrots alone. So, what might the sticks be? Before addressing that question, I thought it would first be helpful to replay something that Transport Secretary Grant Shapps wrote in his Foreword to Decarbonising Transport:

“Some, I know, see change as unwelcome. But… many things in our lives which we would now be appalled by, we once saw as utterly normal: adulterants in our food, rooms filled with cancer-causing smoke, dead rivers full of waste, lead in petrol. I believe that the struggle for decarbonised transport, clean development and clean air is as important as the struggle for clean water was in the 19th century”. “Many things in our lives which we would now be appalled by, we once saw as utterly normal” (my italics for empasis).

I don’t suppose this was Shapps’ intention, but these words bring to my mind something written in another Foreword: that of 1963’s Traffic in Towns (‘the Buchanan report’ written for the then Ministry of Transport). This said “It may be that future generations will regard our carelessness in allowing human beings and moving vehicles to use the same streets, and our apparent callousness to the inevitable results, with the same horror and incomprehension with which we recall the indifference of earlier generations to elementary sanitation”.

Shapps does not expand upon how the changes to our standards and practices on public health, that he cites so approvingly, actually came about. That’s fair enough in the context of his Foreword, but for this Government not to look back at the role that its predecessors played in achieving the national indoor smoking ban and excluding lead from petrol, and indeed in relation to drink-driving, and to apply that learning to the change that the climate emergency now demands, is for it to fail in its responsibilities.

So, let’s have a very quick look back ourselves, shall we? The Road Safety Act 1967, which made it an offence to drive a vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration of over 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood was, like the 2007 smoking ban, based on a large body of robust scientific evidence, opposed with some force both by vested interests and many ordinary people, and made the subject of a great deal of public messaging by the Government of the time, and indeed Governments since.

As for the final removal of leaded petrol from the nation’s filling stations in 2000, that was also the consequence of where the science clearly pointed and was also opposed by vested interests. There wasn’t too much public messaging about it because (a) it had been happening gradually anyway and (b) consumers seemingly weren’t that bothered about the lead, so long as they could still get their petrol fix.

Now, you may think that it goes a bit far for me to describe our societal need for car fuel in terms related to addiction, but the phrase ‘travel habit’ is something of a double entendre. Feel free to say car dependency, as I did earlier, rather than car addiction; but the meaning is essentially the same.

It’s a little like the language numerous ‘Partygate’ commentators use when saying the Prime Minister ‘mislead Parliament’. Most of us read that phrase as meaning ‘lied’.

But back to our relationship with our cars. The extraordinary reaction of some to the implementation of active travel measures on local streets in recent times does bear the hallmark of a visceral unwillingness to contemplate driving less, even of panic at the prospect. Does it not? This sense is only deepened by the fact that the reasons cited for opposition – poor access for disabled people, poor air quality for those living on main roads, poor engagement by Councils – are issues that most of those complaining loudest were previously silent on; and, in cases where their opposition led to the removal of schemes, have been silent on since. As for ideas about how else air quality, congestion, road safety and carbon emissions might be addressed – also silence. It’s almost as though they might be in denial of their true motives.

It rather puts me in mind of that thought-provoking aphorism commonly attributed to the American Sixties author and thinker Kurt Vonnegut: “Dear future generations. Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum.”

But if we are, as a society, far too attached to driving for our collective good, what to do? It’s at this point I shall return to my earlier question about what sticks there might be to enable us to change our travel habits. And it’s now that you might expect me to talk about road user charging, Clean Air Zones, or thawing the fuel duty freeze. On another occasion, I might have done. But today is not that day.

Because there’s some vital groundwork to do before almost any leading politician – especially at the national level – will have the confidence to talk about such measures that will ‘hit people in their pocket’. Until there’s climate change of the political and economic variety, vehement opposition to increasing charges for driving will cite the ‘cost-of-living crisis’ – with some justification – and the plight of ‘hard-pressed motorists’ – with almost no justification, but probable success.

It’s change in the political climate that can happen soonest, and must. The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculated that the cost to the exchequer of the fuel duty freeze was £11.2bn in 2019/20 alone. Such sums would have been very handy in relation to the economic climate, but political pusillanimity has led to fuel duty being lower now than it was in 2010.

Another quote from the Foreword to Traffic in Towns earns its place at this juncture: “It does not need any gift of prophecy to foresee that the Governments of the future will be increasingly preoccupied with the wishes of the car-owners”. This both hits the nail on the head and points towards where perhaps the most important change is needed in relation to how the nation travels.

If the current Government has real conviction about the urgent need to decarbonise transport – and I know some within it genuinely do – then it has got to have the courage of that conviction and, as I said earlier, talk to us straight; and stop – just stop! – trying to tell us we can both have our cake and eat it.

No more mixed and/or mealy-mouthed messages please. No more “It’s not about stopping people doing things: it’s about doing the same things differently”. No more “We will still fly on holiday, but in aircraft using sustainable fuel” or “We will still drive, but in zero emission cars”. No more pretending that Gear Change, Bus Back Better, Decarbonising Transport and the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution are not completely at odds with a £27bn Roads Investment Strategy 2.

The Government needs to get off the fence and get on the telly, the billboards, and those omnipresent social mediums.

Because the Government knew lead kills, it took it out of our petrol, despite the opposition.

Because the Government knew smoking kills, it removed it from our indoor public places and our advertising. Because the Government knew drink-driving kills, it banned it. And because of the nature of the opposition to the drink-driving and smoking bans, it launched major campaigns to tell us all what the science said we had to do.

The Government also knows driving kills. The science is clear: an average of five-a-day through crashes; and thousands-a-year more indirectly, mainly through air pollution. And in contributing very materially to the climate emergency, the science says driving will help kill who-knows-how-many more in years to come, if we don’t do much less of it.

It’s precisely because the opposition is, and will be, fierce that we’re so desperately in need of a national information campaign, telling us why it’s vital we drive less, how we can do it, and what the benefits will be – for us all.

So let’s just say it: Save Lives. Drive Less.

You Know it Makes Sense.

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