Driving deprivation

A new report finds a correlation between child deaths in car accidents and poverty - or is it rain?

Austin Williams

Topics Science & Tech

Children in poor areas are at more risk of being knocked down by a car than kids from more affluent areas.

This is the startling conclusion to the latest Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) report ‘Streets Ahead: Safe and liveable streets for children’ (1), carried out in conjunction with Imperial College London and funded in part by the Guild of Experienced Motorists. Cutting edge research…or blindingly obvious?

Surprisingly, this is the first time that a geographically grid-referenced casualty map has been overlaid on the government’s map of UK social deprivation to make a connection between the two. There are still shortfalls in data – and so to smooth things along slightly the researchers have made a few computational adjustments to fine-tune statistical anomalies, to ensure that the increased casualty rates are confirmed to be ‘purely (my italics) an effect of deprivation’.

Apart from the fact that a local study of 30 wards in Edinburgh in 1996 made the same assertions as the IPPR report, the basic premise that poorer people fare less well in health, mortality, educational attainment and cultural development has been a commonplace of most social trends studies for decades, typified by the Black Report in 1980. So what’s new?

The report looks at casualty figures for 1999 and 2000 only, so long-term trends are clearly beyond the scope of this study (although despite this, the authors are happy to make long-term recommendations). During both 1999 and 2000 the number of child pedestrian road accident fatalities was 107, and the number of serious injuries for that group was 3350 and 3119 respectively (representing a reduction of seven percent killed and seriously injured (KSI) in one year).

Furthermore, of the 8115 wards in England, 2500 wards documented no child pedestrian casualties at all – of any severity – and 2500 documented just one or two casualties (of unspecified severity).

Regardless of these low accident statistics, where casualties did occur the authors have been able to draw comparisons between affluent and disadvantaged areas. The trends seem to point to deprived areas having three to four times the casualty rates of better-off areas. Although the graphs show discrepancies (for instance, many less deprived areas had high accident figures and many deprived areas had low accident rates), the generalised results seem to have statistical merit.

In the past, a ‘disadvantaged area’ used to refer to economically poor areas, traditionally with high unemployment rates. Today however, in the terms of this report, ‘disadvantaged wards’ can mean places where residents have poor access to shops (accessibility deprivation); are lacking medical facilities (health deprivation) or lacking adequate school provision (educational deprivation). Being from a deprived background, it seems, is much more relative than ever before.

To add to the confusion, we find that ‘employment deprivation was strongly associated with fewer child pedestrian casualties’ but a higher likelihood of adult casualties. ‘Income deprivation’ was associated with high child casualties and lower adult casualties. Pick the bones out of that.

In fact, the report’s claim that ‘an extra 10 centimetres of rain results in a seven percent increase in child casualties’ shows that reliance on statistics makes you blind. There may be some correlation, but human actions are not determined by some mystical natural causality. Otherwise a valid research programme could be developed to see what changes in casualty figures occur when there is an ‘r’ in the month. Or whether tea drinkers are more likely to be knocked down than coffee drinkers.

The report finally examines the reduction in accident rates documented in speed-calmed areas – using Webster and Mackie’s 1996 study of just 72 zones with 20 miles-per-hour (mph) speed restrictions (2). This study found, on average, that zones reduced child pedestrian accidents by 70 percent (from 1.24 to 0.37 accidents per year). But Webster and Mackie didn’t examine the displacement effects of speed calming – ie, the shift of cars into neighbouring streets as people attempt to avoid the inconvenience of specific traffic calming measures.

Using this study as a pretext, Hull, a deprived area described as the ‘traffic calming capital of Britain’ with over 100 schemes in place covering half of the city’s road network is hailed as the future. Even though Webster and Mackie’s research only examined the results from 13 such zones in Hull, once again the authors are happy to generalise and recommend the introduction of targeted speed restraint as a means of ameliorating the high casualty rates in all deprived areas.

But if problems are experienced ‘purely’ as a result of deprivation, surely the answer is to overcome the deprivation. If more children in Edinburgh, for example, are injured as a result of the fact that they do not have gardens to play in as do richer kids, surely the strategic urban solution would be to advocate the provision of gardens and play spaces – not necessarily to curtail car driving?

Unfortunately, this is not the fashionable view of lobbyists with the ear of government. Nowadays, big ideas of social provision are too difficult – moderating peoples’ behaviour is much, much easier.

Austin Williams is director of the Transport Research Group, technical editor of the Architects’ Journal, and motoring correspondent at the Daily Telegraph. He is a contributor to Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Carchitecture: When the Car and the City Collide, August/Birkhauser, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Road to nowhere, by Kate Moorcock

Facts about the tracks, by Austin Williams

Driving London to despair?, by Austin Williams

(1) See Streets Ahead: Safe and liveable streets for children, Tony Grayling, Karl Hallam, Daniel Graham, Richard Anderson and Stephen Glaister, IPPR 2002

(2) ‘Review of traffic calming schemes in 20mph zones’, (1996), D webster and A mackie, TRL Report 215, Transport Research Laboratory, Crowthorne

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Topics Science & Tech


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