Thursday, 10 July 2008

Cars as Weapons

Earlier this year I produced a posting asking 'When Will Cars Be Considered the Weapons They Are?' because I noted that in contrast to using a gun or a knife, which kill far fewer people in the UK, you were likely to get only 4 years imprisonment at most, often less for killing someone with a car (and only a £2,200 fine if you run them over and kill them with a bicycle - see the death of Rhiannon Bennett killed by cyclist Jason Howard, but that is a far less common occurrence). Last week I came across an article in a magazine in Hampshire by a man called Professor Colin Pritchard who has a long line of titles. His article was actually about how the media distorts our perceptions of British society. It alerted me to something I had not realised that the US media apparently portrays UK society as facing 'social collapse' though our in 2007 we had 64 males murdered aged 15-24 compared to 4,191 in the USA (which has a population about four times larger), the rate is 17 per million in the age group, in the UK compared to 209 per million in the age group in the USA. Apparently such reports are continuing to make older people fearful. Last year 98 people over the age of 65 were murdered, one third of them by members of their family, given that being over 65 is a much bigger category in fact the rate is only 7 per million per year compared to the US rate of 27 per million per year.

Anyway, this posting was not intended to bring out the fact that Americans should stop condemning Britain as being a hazardous place to live when in fact their country is far more dangerous, it was to back up my points about the fatalities from death from motor vehicles which I outlined earlier in the year with someone else's analysis. Professor Pritchard rightly says 'UK youth road deaths, which the media at the national-level virtually "air-brushes" out of the news'. I think this is as with the American media talking about gun crime, that many British readers, especially men, see it as offensive to even raise the issue of deaths caused by the thing they love: cars in the UK, guns in the USA. Any news programme or newspaper which started going on about how many people are killed by speeding would soon lose viewers/readers. As I noted before there are websites dedicated to trying to demonstrate that most it is 'the fault' of most pedestrians when they are killed or severely injured by a car and that proper speed limits in towns is somehow more dangerous than no speed limits because drivers are always checking their speedometers (suggesting they are indeed very poor drivers if by now they have no idea of how fast they are going if they are not reading it off their speedometer!). According to Professor Pritchard the number of people aged 15-24 in the UK killed by vehicles was 630 in 2007, which works out at 169 per million per year, compared to 17 per million per year for all other forms of murder. (The USA has 7,325 deaths from road accidents of people aged 15-24 last year: 365 per million per year, still higher than their deaths from other murders, but by a far smaller factor than in the UK).

As Pritchard outlines, one reason why the road deaths are so much higher than other forms of murder is because the UK is actually a very safe place, even given the rapid rise in attacks with knives. However, it is not portrayed as such. We have regular crime programmes but possibly one programme per year on driving safely. In fact dangerous driving is lionised by weekly programmes notably 'Top Gear' on BBC2 which has become the home of laddish behaviour leading to one of its presenters Jeremy Clarkson becoming the voice of populist, conservative, slightly bigoted politics in numerous articles and now books. The presenters keep striving to do more dangerous stunts with motor vehicles under the pretence that it is a 'normal' car show, which it used to be when it started back in 1970. It entered its current laddish format in a (what has proven successful) bid to gain more viewers, in 2002. It has been criticised for showing presenters drinking gin while driving and presenter Richard Hammond was almost killed in October 2006 when a car he was driving crashed at high speed. This is how so many UK drivers envisage themselves when they are behind the wheel, with real arrogance and a very self-centred approach. Contrast this to the 1970s when there were regular 'public information films' of a couple of minutes showing the consequences of hitting pedestrians (they used a hammer and a peach to good effect) and interviews with people crippled after crashing a car while not wearing a seatbelt. We need hard-hitting broadcasting like that which shows the tragedy not the glamour of bad driving.

Proper sentencing which treats murdering someone with a car equal to murdering them with a gun or a knife is also needed, i.e. a minimum of 14 years for manslaughter and 30 years for murder, this would concentrate the minds of men in their 30s and 40s to realise they would not be driving again until they had passed retirement age. Getting a maximum of 4 years and in most cases 2 years or less, is totally insufficient. As so much of the US media is cowed by the gun-owning lobby so is much of the UK media by the bad-driving lobby. I know these people pretend they are good drivers, but in fact that is a lie as anyone who drives down our major roads regularly knows. Even if there was not another single vehicle on the road, these people (and they are women as well as men) would be a danger, but mixed in with the average level of rush hour traffic they are as dangerous as someone running around a shopping centre with a pistol with no safety catch.

Maybe there is hope for the future. Pritchard's article notes that statistics show that 14-15 year olds in 2005 were less likely to be involved either in smoking tobacco, taking narcotics or having sex below the legal age of consent (16 years old) than their counterparts in 1985. This seems contrary to what we are told in the media. Of course, I have come to realise much of the media tells us what it thinks we want to hear rather than attempting to relay the truth. So possibly 10-15 years from now we might find slightly more considerate drivers prevalent on the roads, but in the meantime many more hundreds of people in the UK will be murdered and maimed by drivers.

P.P. The saga seems to persist. Today (18th July) I heard that a 19-year old man driving an uninsured car was given a 20-month sentence for killing an 11-year old by running him over. The man fled the scene and did not report the murder and he gets less than 2 years in prison. If he had stabbed the boy he would have got 14 years. In Northern Ireland though I noted this week one man had his sentence increased from 4 years to 7 years for killing two men while drunk driving.

In addition, courts are now being advised to be tougher. The BBC reported this week that causing death while holding a mobile phone could now get 7 years (rather than 4 years) and drunk or drugged driving leading to death can get 14 years, the same as for manslaughter committed whilst on foot. However, death by 'careless' driving as opposed to 'reckless' is still likely only to get a maximum of 3 years but 'careless' will now be treated as 'reckless' if drugs or drink are involved. Unsurprisingly people feel this guidance is still not going far enough. If you want to kill someone and get away with a far shorter sentence, run them down with a car when you are sober and you will be out in 3 years, stab them to death and it will probably be 14 years and shoot them and it will probably be 30 years. No wonder more people are killed in the UK by cars than guns or knives or any other weapon.

Link to BBC story about sentencing guidance:

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