British author Simon Kuper provides a different take on the war on terror. The lamestream media protrays terrorists and terror-events as apocalyptic. Nothing could be further from the truth. The most likely danger is from motor vehicles. Death from a terrorist act is a blip on the screen; vehicular accidents overload the screen buffers. Of course, terrorists are not blind to the attraction of car-bombs, truck-bombs, and roadside IEDs, If this is a (fair & balanced) revelation of real danger, so be it.
Our Deadliest Problem? Not Terrorism
By Simon Kuper
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If humanity wants some quick wins, a good place to start would be road accidents. Traffic killed 1.24 million people in 2010, says the World Health Organisation. That’s about double the toll of homicides and armed conflict combined. Yet we could save many of these lives quite easily. Our failure to do so is in part a simple failure of imagination.
“Road traffic injuries have been neglected from the global health agenda . . . despite being predictable and largely preventable,” says the WHO. Car crashes aren’t considered news precisely because they are routine, remarks the Dutch writer Joris Luyendijk. He says that although road accidents are “the biggest bloodbath in the Arab world”, media instead focus on the much smaller bloodbath of terrorism.
Terrorists killed nearly 18,000 people worldwide in 2013, says the Institute for Economics and Peace. That’s 1.5 per cent of the number killed by traffic. Of course, terrorism might one day escalate to apocalyptic proportions, but then pundits have been predicting that since 2001. Meanwhile, with ever more cars sold, roads will soon probably kill more people than either Aids or tuberculosis.
Driving is too banal an activity to arouse much fear. People tend to worry more about flying, whereas the most dangerous part of a plane journey is often the drive to the airport, says Jody Sindelar, health economist at the Yale School of Public Health. Plane crashes killed 1,320 people worldwide last year, yet they dominate TV news. Karl Ove Knausgaard, the “Norwegian Proust”, explains: “A plane crash was a ritual, it happened every so often, the same chain of events, and we were never part of it ourselves. A sense of security, but also excitement and intensity, for imagine how terrible the last seconds were for the passengers . . . ”
By contrast, the language we use for the traffic pandemic lacks intensity. The phrase “car crash” has become slang for a social or professional mishap. The word “accident” suggests that a death was unavoidable, a matter of fate. This is wrong. Countries such as Greece and France have shown how fast deaths can be reduced when a government bothers. Sometimes the nanny state works. In 1973, 17,000 people a year died on French roads. Then leaders such as Pierre Messmer and later Jacques Chirac took action. Speed limits were imposed, seat belts made compulsory, radars installed etc. It turns out that some tragedies aren’t inevitable. A generation ago around Europe, motorcycle accidents provided a reliable supply of organ donors. That ended after helmets became compulsory.
In short, we know what to do. “Globally there is nothing to invent,” says Jean Todt, the UN’s special envoy for road safety. The UN’s target of cutting road deaths to below one million by 2020 is eminently feasible. But governments have to want to reach it, even if that means irritating voters. Don’t just set speed limits; enforce them. Don’t just conduct breathalyser tests; conduct them outside nightclubs on weekend nights. And ban drivers from using phones. The colonisation of the human mind by smartphones is now killing pedestrians. Apps that inform drivers about traffic jams are particularly distracting. “Hands-free phones are not much safer than hand-held phone sets,” cautions the WHO.
One day, when driverless cars arrive, we may marvel that we ever let distracted, shortsighted and occasionally drunk humans pilot large metal projectiles. For now, perhaps the key thing to change is attitudes. Many people (especially in poor countries) get no traffic education at all. Lesson one could be that aggressive driving is not proof of masculinity. Machismo helps explain why 77 per cent of traffic fatalities worldwide (as counted by the WHO) are males.
Another common attitudinal problem: in countries where cars are relatively new and therefore prestigious, drivers tend to regard themselves as kings and pedestrians as cockroaches. When I spent time in Ghana in 2000, many drivers approaching a village would honk and accelerate — even at night, when they often drove without lights. One morning I woke in a village to the sound of a woman howling. Her son had just been run over. Too many Ghanaian parents know the feeling.
The developing world — where over 90 per cent of road deaths happen — could make big gains fast. Todt describes a typical scenario today: an ancient vehicle, discarded from some rich country, is overloaded with people and driven by someone who bought his licence. Then, if an “accident” happens, the ambulance rarely arrives.
Changing all this would cost money. But road crashes cost 1 to 3 per cent of countries’ gross national product, estimates the World Bank. For every death, several more victims survive maimed, often needing lifelong care. Meanwhile, the World Bank’s fund for road safety has an annual budget of just $3m, says Todt.
The world has so many problems that it’s hard to know where to start. Governments spend lots of energy trying to stop terrorism. It would probably be smarter to devote some of that effort to road safety, not just because it’s a far deadlier problem, but also because unlike with terrorism, we know what works. Ω
[Simon Kuper joined the Financial Times in 1994. He ended up writing the daily currencies column and was driven out by tedium in 1998. He returned in 2002 as a sports columnist and has been there ever since, occasionally allowed out of his sports box to write about books, the Netherlands or other subjects. Kuper's first book, Football Against the Enemy (1994), set him on a path of writing about sport with an anthropologist’s eye. Kuper followed that book with Ajax, The Dutch, the War: Football in Europe during the Second World War (2003). He received a BA (First Class Honors) in History and German from Oxford University; Kuper also studied at Harvard University as a Kennedy Scholar.]
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