How often do you think about the shameless way in which politicians and journalists take advantage of a semi-literate population by stringing words together in a way which seems to lend a spurious logic to the most outrageous irrationality?
The other day, I passed a notice in a local street in which the traffic had been 'calmed' by punctuating the roadway with a series of bumps. The notice was to the effect that in order to 'improve' local bus services, the existing bumps were to be replaced by 'traffic tables', a euphemism for bumps of a different and more expensive design less damaging to low-floor buses. Notice how the use of 'improve' distracts attention from the fact that there would have been no need for improvement had the existing bumps never been put there.
In what sense can traffic be 'calmed'? Does 'road rage' mean that roads become angry and behave irrationally? When you hear a squeal of brakes, a shrieking of rubber on tarmac, a crash of colliding metal, a honking of horns, screams of human or animal pain and voices raised in consternation, do you interpret it to mean that the traffic is restless today or that the road is in a bad mood?
Of course, people who live in areas where traffic becomes congested or where speeding vehicles endanger the well-being of children, old people, pets, or even material property, are perfectly justified in expecting their political representatives to do something to alleviate their plight. But they are equally justified in expecting that whatever solution is implemented will be rational and effective and economically viable.
If the solution is referred to as 'traffic calming', is it not a very clear sign that the politicians have failed to face up to the real problem and fallen back on an expensive expedient which can be sold to the voter as 'doing everything possible'. When, after a few years, it becomes clear that the expedient has just made matters worse, it can be blamed on a previous administration and another even more expensive and equally useless expedient can be implemented. After all, it 'creates jobs' and is thought to avoid losing votes.
Why can politicians not just face up to the fact that the vehicles which constitute the traffic are controlled by human beings like themselves; that human beings are both rational and emotional; and that to verbally transfer these qualities to vehicles and roads is an absolute guarantee that traffic problems will not be rationally addressed?
What does 'traffic calming' mean in practice? It means humps and bumps and obstructions and complicated little roundabouts and lots of distracting road signs. For the Community Charge payer, it means hefty expenditure on initial implementation, on maintenance, on tearing up the old system every now and then and replacing it with another one. For the local residents, it means disruption during implementation and increased noise afterwards as vehicles stop and start and grind along in low gear. For the population at large, it means increased air pollution as fuel burnt inefficiently generates greater volumes of noxious fumes. For the vehicle owner, it means increased wear-and-tear and greater fuel consumption. For the adolescent tearaway in the stolen Mercedes, it makes a high-speed run down the humpy road more thrilling than a ride on the big dipper.
But for the legitimate responsible driver, it means additional hazards to negotiate, more stopping and starting, and taking longer to get to work. So every 'traffic calming' scheme is really a 'driver-infuriating' scheme. And it is, indeed, a strange sort of logic that leads to the conclusion that roads become safer if you make them more complicated and unpleasant to drive on. Obstacles just 'get in the way' — and not only of drivers. Once implemented, they also get in the way of further constructive thought that might furnish a better solution to the original problem.
Is it any wonder, then, that once drivers have escaped from the irritations of the traffic-calming experiments, they should vent their rage on each other on the 'open' road? Is it not at least conceivable that a reduction in the number of minor accidents in the 'calmed' neighbourhood can be correlated with an increase in the number of serious accidents on the derestricted highway?
So is it possible to make local roads safer without adopting a cure that is worse than the disease? I think so. Here are a few suggestions which the reader is welcome to comment upon, amend, or reject and replace with better ones.
Road users (ALL road users) should be trained to use roads responsibly and with consideration for other legitimate road users. So remove all humps, bumps, chicanes, unnecessary roundabouts, signs, and speed limits. Provide smooth low-noise road surfaces that afford good grip whether wet or dry. Then put the onus on the driver to accept full responsibility for whatever happens as a demonstrable consequence of his or her driving on these roads.
Designate as H (for Hazard) those roads in residential neighbourhoods and other areas where traffic congestion or high-speed driving is a cause for concern and impose draconian penalties on everyone whose vehicle, whether parked or moving, is involved in an accident in that road or whose unaccompanied toddler or pet is so involved.
In general, punish every offender in proportion to the actual harm caused directly by the offence.
On an 'H' road, every legitimate driver of a vehicle involved in an accident of any sort, even as an 'innocent' party, could automatically forfeit the right to drive for a period. For example, any driver whose moving vehicle killed a pedestrian, whether negligently or not, could receive a life-time ban from driving. Fines could be levied in proportion to the damage caused. This would have two effects: people who live and work in the neighbourhood would drive with greater care and courtesy; and people who had no need to drive in the neighbourhood would tend to avoid it.
Every illegitimate driver of a vehicle involved in an accident of any sort on an 'H' road could be sentenced to a period of labour on a road-building or -repairing gang; if the offender were a juvenile, reporting restrictions would be lifted so that parental shame and neighbourly interest could be enlisted for their deterrent effect.
Full publicity would be given to all cases so that individuals could no longer rely on anonymity to sustain their spurious reputations for being good citizens.
Such a solution would not only tend to improve human relations. It would also save the huge sums which are currently wasted on deliberately clogging up the arteries of commercial and social life; it would generate income from fines for abuse of road space; and it would enable local taxes to be reduced.
Might I also suggest to all politicians and their advisers that they should forthwith cease to pretend that they have the correct answers to all human problems and that, if they are given the unthinking co-operation of the masses, everything will turn out for the best. Why can they not be humble enough to acknowledge that the wisest and ablest people in society do not necessarily become politicians or government servants?
Acting responsibly in politics means allowing individual citizens to be responsible for themselves as far as possible. The politician's legitimate rôle is not to force change on society but to hold the ring and maintain a degree of order while society changes itself.
If only politicians would stop interfering in matters which should be far beneath their notice and refrain from taking so much of our earnings in taxes, we could do far more for ourselves and generally make life more pleasant for everyone — including the politicians.