The ugly blame game over the M5 pile-up
There is something almost medieval, certainly opportunistic, in the shameless rush to find someone to blame for Friday's tragic car crash.
Friday night in the county of Somerset in south-west England was a damp, chilly and cloudless affair. Predictably, as the temperatures dropped, fog started to form. It didn’t just form in a uniform way, however. Rather it formed in dense patches, undisturbed by the limited wind and trapped beneath a canopy of warm air.
Now, who knows if this fog was a major factor in what happened later that evening on a small stretch of the M5 motorway just outside the town of Taunton? Something else could have played an equally important role: a momentary lapse of concentration from one of the drivers or a technical failure in one of the vehicles perhaps. Either way, this speculation does not change the tragic fact of what happened: seven people were killed and 51 others injured in a horrific multiple pile-up involving 31 cars and six lorries.
Yet no sooner had the crash happened than too many rushed in to speculate about what, exactly, caused it. And it hasn’t just been insensitive but disinterested speculation either. Instead, it has been marked with a peculiarly contemporary impulse: a desire to blame, to find someone or something responsible. In the eyes of those willing to see something more than tragic misfortune at work, this was not an accident; it was caused by the contemporary equivalent of a bad spirit.
A principal recipient of such finger-pointing has been Firestorm Pyrotechnics, a company which ran the annual fireworks display (minus a bonfire) at Taunton Rugby Club about half a kilometre from the motorway. Chief Constable Anthony Bangham, of Avon and Somerset Constabulary, started the blame-ball rolling on Sunday when he announced: ‘We do believe that while there was fog and it was difficult conditions in the area, that actually from witness evidence there was very significant smoke across the carriageway.’ Pushed further, Bangham gave those listening what they wanted – the agent of tragedy, the persons responsible: ‘We need to look at who gave permission [for the fireworks display] and how it was organised.’
And so on Sunday, as if in the midst of a murder investigation, the rugby club was being cordoned off and police were busy questioning club officials. Elsewhere the press was busy ferreting out details about Firestorm Pyrotechnics. The Times’ comments were thick with implication. The ‘local company’, it said, had ‘one qualified firer [with] Level 1 qualifications’. That is, an ‘assistant operator with limited experience’. Another commentary in the same paper was quick to finger the ‘man-made’ ingredient that ‘made this fog particularly lethal’: ‘Smoke from the fireworks display at Taunton Rugby Club.’
Not that there was particularly compelling evidence for assuming that smoke from a fireworks display was the cause. As one Transport minister Mike Penning explained, the smoke that witnesses claimed to have seen at the time of the crash could just as likely have come from one of the several burning vehicles. Pyrotechnics experts have also been sceptical about the possibility of fireworks-related smoke travelling and then forming a ‘bank of smoke’ thick enough drastically to affect visibility. But then it doesn’t seem to have been evidence that informed speculation about the role played by a relatively small fireworks display 500 metres away. Rather, such blame-casting draws its force from the increasingly widespread antagonism towards fireworks, whether it’s kids getting their hands on them, or the supposed health‘n’safety implications that make Bonfire Night, in the words of one crash-related commentary, ‘the worst day of the year for air pollution’.
It is difficult to escape the whiff of opportunism in the immediate response to the crash. For those with campaigning axes, it seems a tragic accident has provided the chance to indulge in a fair bit of grinding. And it wasn’t just the anti-fireworks lobby shamelessly projecting their animus. More striking still has been the intervention of the anti-car, anti-speed lobby, spurred on, no doubt, by the Lib-Con coalition’s plans to revise the current 70 miles-per-hour speed limit upwards to 80 miles per hour.
‘I’m sure there will be a discussion about road safety that comes out of this’, said transport secretary Justine Greening. She was right. Within hours of the accident, Robert Gifford of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport was calling the crash ‘a wake-up call to ministers that road safety is not something that happens by chance. It is something that needs to be consistently invested in’. Elsewhere, a Times columnist admitted that while there was ‘no evidence that speed was the main cause of Friday’s disaster… a higher [speed] limit might have made it worse’.
Spotting an opportunity to advance their crusade, the professional campaigners marched in. ‘We have said from the beginning that we would not support an increase in the speed limit… Our concern is that there will be more serious accidents’, said Jo Bullock of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. Anti-speed campaign group Brake also saw a chance to promote its cause: ‘Government policy should not be doing anything to increase the number of man-made, unnatural deaths occurring’, a spokesperson announced.
In the Guardian, the blame coming the car’s way continued. Self-proclaimed ‘non-driver’ Peter Wilby argued that driving cars faster is something ‘thrilling, particularly to men’. Which is why, he argued, the government needs to be tougher on drivers, not more lenient. ‘We congratulate ourselves, observing that “only” 1,857 people were killed last year. We regard road deaths almost as acts of God, and rarely demand to know, as we do for other transport casualties, who is to blame.’
In fact, there are all too many people willing to exploit a terrible accident in pursuit of those to blame. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a bonfire-less fireworks display being held responsible or lorries travelling at four miles under their 60 miles-per-hour speed limit: the search for the will-o’-the-wisp culprit, the reason for what steadfastly remains an accident, has paid no attention to what happened on Friday evening. Instead, that reality has been effaced in favour of what various campaigners and commentators want to believe happened.
This unswerving conviction is marked by something almost medieval in sentiment. That is, there is a refusal to accept that no one or no thing is to blame for what happened. In other words, there is a refusal to face up to the fact that accidents, no matter how tragic, do happen. In place of the modern acknowledgement of sheer contingency, they revive a pre-modern belief in some animating spirit at work in the world. So just as a fourteenth-century village beset by bad harvests might hold the presence of a particular person responsible, so today’s willing blamers foist responsibility for a terrible accident on to a set of unwilling scapegoats, be they speed-happy motorists or a group of pyrotechnicians.
One thing is for sure: while this cacophony of blaming may well result in the even tighter regulation of fireworks displays or a climate yet more inhospitable to motorists, it will do nothing to stop accidents from happening.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.