Passive driving

“The ideal of the ethical man,” wrote the great Victorian scientist and liberal Thomas Henry Huxley, “is to limit his freedom of action to a sphere in which he does not interfere with the freedom of others.”

At Bath Skeptics in the Pub in April, Ian Walker talked about transport-related (ir)rational behaviour and policy.  One of the ideas he talked about was “passive driving”.  The analogy, of course, is to passive smoking.  Every time a smoker lights up in a restaurant or pub or club, the health and life expectancy of all the diners, punters, and staff around that smoker takes a tiny hit.  And those people get nothing positive in return.  In a liberal society, we defend the right of smokers to give themselves horrible slow fatal diseases.  But we expect them not to interfere with the rights of everyone else to their health.  And on the occasions when they can not show that restraint voluntarily, we have to resort to legislation banning smoking in restaurants and pubs and clubs.

Similarly, every time you get into your car and fire up the engine, my health and life expectancy takes a hit, and I get nothing in return.  You get to work or to the shops or to a day out, but I get nothing except a reduced life expectancy. Every time you get in the driving seat, you are making the decision that your journey is worth more than my and everybody else’s health and wellbeing. How big a problem is it?

Well, before the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces and workplaces, estimates were that around 600 people in the UK were dying prematurely each year because of exposure to second-hand  tobacco smoke in those environments.

Exposure to driving in the UK annually causes:

  • over 2,000 deaths in what the DfT describe as road “accidents”, of which less than half are of car users (stats for drivers and passengers are, sadly, all combined). Around 500 pedestrians, just over 100 cyclists, around 500 motorcyclists and a few bus and coach passengers are killed in “accidents”.  A few of those deaths will have nothing to do with cars — indeed, some genuinely will be “accidents” — but most are in some way the consequence of other people choosing to get in a car, a choice that would never bring any benefit to the person killed. As Harry Rutter pointed out at Street Talks, pedestrian deaths are particularly high in children, the elderly, and the lowest socio-economic groups: people to whom the benefits of car use are often out of reach, but who have to suffer the negative consequences regardless.  Motor vehicles are the biggest cause of death in teenagers, who should have a large proportion of their lives ahead of them, arguably making road “accidents” a more important issue than diseases which kill late in life and thus take away fewer quality life years.
  • Air pollution is not a fashionable topic, yet estimates of UK deaths attributable to it are even higher than for crashes, ranging from 12,000 to 35,000. Motor vehicles are not the only contributor to air pollution, but they are the major one.  Air pollution is especially a problem in cities, paradoxically the places that usually have the highest proportion of non-car users.  People living happily in cities without a car — who have perhaps even made the conscious decision to live somewhere within walking or cycling distance of employment and shops and services — again have to deal with the negative consequences of people driving into and through their city.
  • Diseases associated with obesity and sedentary lifestyles are amongst the biggest killers of our time: cardiovascular disease, cancers, diabetes, even dementia.  We know that these diseases can be prevented or delayed by regular exercise — cycling, for example — and that exercise is therefore one of the biggest predictors of life expectancy.  But while a great many people in the UK would like to be able to make their regular short journeys by bicycle (not so much because they worry about their health, but because it’s cheap and simple), very few do.  The overwhelming reason people give for not cycling is that the roads are far too uninviting: because they’re full of fast moving and badly driven motor vehicles.  Every time somebody chooses to drive a car, the rest of us get none of the benefit, but we do get dangerous, intimidating, noisy and smelly streets, in which normal people will never want to ride a bicycle.

That’s just to list the obvious ways that other people choosing to drive has negative health consequences for you and me.

I was reminded of all this because today the Association of British Nutters Drivers are back in the news demanding their freedoms.  Nurse turned Tory MP, and now parliamentary under-secretary of state for health, Anne Milton said last week that allowing residents to close their residential streets to motor vehicles on sundays so that their kids can go out and play might be a good thing.  The ABD are said to be amazed that their freedom to drive wherever and whenever they like might, for just one day a week, come second to other people’s freedom to choose how to use just a little bit of their own neighbourhood. Once again, the ABD behave like spoiled children, throwing their toys around when told it’s somebody else’s turn to play.

The ideal of the ethical man is to limit his freedom of action to a sphere in which he does not interfere with the freedom of others.  The Association of British Drivers fail at this most basic principle of ethics.

13 thoughts on “Passive driving”

  1. Didn’t agree with the entirety of this post – I would probably fall under the remit of the label ‘petrolhead’, at home at least! At Uni I become a bicycle, bus and foot user, which tends to last for the first part of holidays…

    Good to see my own MP (Milton) getting the right idea – I would gladly park at the end of my road to see all the various children (no doubt hidden away because of fears of bugs, dirt, and other things children used to be allowed to play with) running around/using bike-type toys. Races in the little tikes red and yellow car are a fond childhood memory.

    Thanks for this, very thought provoking.

  2. Good article. I have three points to make about it:
    Firstly, “In a liberal society, we defend the right of smokers to give themselves horrible slow fatal diseases.” No we don’t – e.g. cocaine, ice are rightfully prohibited as they are addictive, useless and highly costly to society to deal with the end results. Secondly, we can defend the right to drink and smoke but society should ban the sale of tobacco and alcohol and other addictive health-destroying drugs. Note that I said “ban the sale of”. We can let people who want to drink and smoke do so, but only with alcohol and tobacco they have grown and produced of their own making. Society should not let anyone gain from selling addictive poisons to others. A majority of society just has to agree that we can’t continue to pick up the tab for resulting medical expenses from poison-drug abuse and this will happen.
    Lastly, it is not possible to spoil a child in the way most people think of, as the children of laissez-faire parents who should have hit them hard and often. A few parents with low self-esteem will “spoil” their by trying to meet its every whim no matter whether it is realistic to do so. However the majority of so-called “spoilt children” – the ones who “act out” in public by throwing “tantrums” – are in reality the children who are abused by their parents, mainly at home behind closed doors where society can’t see it.
    Unspoiled kids are the ones who are listened to by their parents and have all their wants met if it is realistic to do so, and understand when and why sometimes this can’t be done. These kids grow up with their self-esteem intact and constitute the few genuinely nice human beings you come across in western society, ones who understand sharing, show empathy, and speak up for themselves without fear or favour.
    It is important to understand this, as the selfish people like the motor drivers in this article who don’t give a shit about others are just the grown up abused children, lashing out at society seeking revenge for being abused. Note, not all abused children grow up to be such arseholes, but all such arseholes were abused as children.

  3. Much of the time a person gets in their car and drives somewhere you are getting a nurse at your hospital bedside, or an engineer fixing your network, or a bin man collecting your recycling, or whatever.

    It’s called “the economy” and you are benefiting from it in the same way everybody else is.


    1. I benefit from many people making journeys and from some of the goods and materials that move around the country. Indeed, I make lots of journeys myself — many of them contributing in various ways to “the economy”.

      How do I benefit from strangers choosing to make their journeys by car?

  4. Simon, you seem to be arguing that ‘much of the time a person gets in their car’, the journey is either essential, or cannot be carried out by any other means of transport.

    This is not true. Some of the time, perhaps.

  5. Simon – you are talking nonsense, although you could make it sense by changing one simple word: *some* of the time a person gets etc…

    If we want to live in a modern technological society, in homes with modern wiring and plumbing (and plumbing is certainly a health benefit, as the Victorians knew) then electricians and plumbers need to be able to get to their customers, and the quantities of tools and materials they carry can’t realistically be carried on foot or by bike.

    Food and other goods need to be transported from producer to consumer, although here things get more complex – there are alternatives to road freight for example, and look at the idiocy of, say, Tesco trucking Hampshire strawberries to their Glasgow stores while Sainsburys trucks Scottish strawberries to their Southampton stores.

    At the other end, *some* of the time (not “most”, but in my view too much) you will see an individual, alone in a private passenger car, driving to work in a place which can be accessed just as easily by bus or train, and more cheaply if you take out the subsidies such people are relying on like a free central London parking space with a market price of £25-30 a day.

    *Some* of the time you will see children taken to school in a 4×4 when they only live a half-mile away and could walk or cycle. You only have to look at what happens to road congestion as soon as schools break up for vacations.

    *Some* of the time you will see people hop in their car for a reason as trivial as going a quarter mile to the corner shop for a bottle of milk. Or worse, visit a garden centre or DIY store on a Sunday, moon around aimlessly for an hour and then drive home without buying anything. Why do people make such futile trips? Because they can.

    Statistics tell us that half of all car journeys are under 3 miles – under 3km in the case of urban journeys. Many if not most don’t require the load capacity of a motor vehicle. There are viable alternatives here.

    I don’t think people realise how their personal choices adversely inpact on the freedom of others but I am not in despair. Not so very long ago, smokers could impose their habit on others, in pubs and restuarants and even in theatres, but not any more. Drivers could take to the wheel three sheets to the wind with impunity, but society doesn’t accept that anymore. Two very powerful industries, Tobacco and the drinks industry, fought hard to keep things as they were but eventually lost in the face of overwhelming evidence of harm. The motor industry is perhaps the most powerful lobby of all, but the same fate could befall it, one day.

  6. I’ve thought of this idea before, ie what are the negatives to society of everyone’s individual actions when it comes to transport choices, and it’s great to see them explored so eloquently here. Good work!

    As for Simon’s comment – the idea that our economic stability and the ability to drive a car are wedded is a nonsense. Bit more bigger thinking needed please!

  7. Simon,
    Such twaddle, perhaps you should look at the National Travel Survey.
    You have got things backwards.
    While you’re at it, you could Google the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

    Cars are not the only means of transport. Active transport has numerous benefits over motor-vehicles and the side effects of active transport are almost entirely beneficial , as opposed to motorised transport, where the side effects are almost entirely negative for society, the economy, the individual etc.

  8. The deleterious consequences for physical health of car dependency are a given: obese, heart deseased hypertensives contributing to the premature deaths of circa 38,000 per annum through respiratory disease exacerbated by air pollution from motor transport.
    Harder to quantify are the costs to social capital occasioned by unnecessary car use. Google Donald Appleyard for the authoritative research.

  9. Actually the figures for premature deaths from air pollution were revised to up to 50,000 last year! ( and according to Cycling and Health – The Evidence, which Cycling England published in 2007, there are a total of about 85,000 deaths a year due to diseases associated with physical inactivity (heart disease, strokes and cancers).

    The costs to society of our car dependency are huge (~£63-76 billion or more) and the sooner we realise it and start making motorists pay for it the better!

  10. We’re holding a public meeting that may be of interest to you.
    Many residents of South Vale in Upper Norwood are keen to see their street become one of Anne Milton’s Sunday Play Streets. I am a resident, and have started an online petition in favour of the Play Street idea, which is rapidly gathering national support:

    South Vale residents are divided over the prospect of children playing freely outside their front door. This emotive issue will come to a head on Sunday 5th June when a public meeting is to be held for residents and other interested parties to exchange views. London Play and Members of Parliament have been invited, along with TV and national and local media

    The meeting will take place between 11:30am – 1:30pm at Antenna Studios, Upper Norwood/ Crystal Palace, London SE19 3AN, just around the corner from the street in question.

  11. Actually our charity London Play is not at war wiith the motorists, as with the failure to win the “war on terror”, we aim to negotiate a truce satisfactory to both parties. Play streets will allow children to play out safely, and motor vehicle drivers to go about their business, but more carefully than they do now, as children will be playing out, just as I did in the 50’s.

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