October 1, 2015
It’s perhaps no surprise that contemporary definitions of the word “terrorism” have largely narrowed somewhat, but one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of “terrorism” still represents the broader usage:
“The instilling of fear or terror; intimidation, coercion, bullying.”
The first use of the term is believed to have been around 1794 and was in reference not to to the use of terror as a tool to undermine governments, but to the use of terror by governments themselves. Only a few years later it was being used in reference to the British government of the time.
At some point you’ll almost certainly have seen someone walking across a road and then breaking into a little theatrical gallop when a car approaches. Is this the act of someone running for their lives? No. If it was, they’d suddenly sprint. It’s the act of someone who’s been conditioned to believe that motor vehicles and the people within them must be allowed to proceed with minimal disruption. To disrupt this is, at the very least, discourteous. The gallop is the gesture that acknowledges this.
This conditioned belief in the supremacy of vehicular motion has many roots. Some are subtle and insidious; some are more apparent; and some are basically terrorism.
And, as with any mental conditioning, it’s best to start work on your targets early.
Tales of The Road
Tales of The Road is a campaign aimed at 6-11 year olds. It comprises a range of resources, including some animated videos which epitomise the psychology of the campaign.
“Before his leg was bent backwards / He loved to play football all day / But the boy didn’t cross in a safe place / Where he could see cars come his way / He then didn’t stop, look and listen / A car hit him at quite a pace / And now he cannot play football / ‘Cos his leg broke in more than one place”
(Note that on the website the wording is different and even more sinister: “Before his leg was snapped backwards / He loved to play football all day / But the boy didn’t cross in a safe place / Where he could see cars come his way / He then didn’t stop, look and listen / A car smashed him all over the place / And now he cannot play football / ‘cos he battered his leg and his face.”)
“He couldn’t be bothered to walk to a place / Where cars could be seen from a nice open space / So he crossed the road right next to a bend / Now his arm for some while will be struggling to mend / A car cannot dodge what it cannot see / So flattened the boy, unfortunately / Now he can’t swim, dress himself or go-kart / ‘Cos his arm is all limp and falling apart”
She always liked to look her best / So didn’t wear a nice bright vest / Or any clothing that was bright / When she was out at nearly night / But traffic couldn’t see her, see / And now she isn’t so trendy / A car drove right into her guts / And covered her with bruisy cuts
There are numerous common themes.
All of them replace drivers with inanimate objects, in reference not only to collisions but even to seeing (“a car smashed him”, “a car cannot dodge what it cannot see”, “traffic couldn’t see her”, “a car drove right into her guts”).
All of them place clear blame on the victim (“his leg broke in more than one place”, “he couldn’t be bothered”, “she didn’t wear a vest”).
All of them share the same audio-visual atmosphere: corpse-like children with huge, doleful eyes; eerie background noise; a voiceover so unemotional yet forceful that it is reminiscent of many contemporary dramatic portrayals of physchopathic killers.
The printed material rams home the victim-blaming message still further: the “I was hit by a car” article (which, despite a banner proclaiming “real life tales of the road”, is wrtten in a way that feels as real-life as Charlie and The Chocolate Factory) demands that the reader wear reflectives “so that vehicles can see you”, and even offers up gospel: “I know now that if we’d been wearing colourful or reflective clothes, the driver would have seen us and the accident would never have happened.” At least a driver is finally acknowledged, but teaching 6-11 year olds that reflectives will prevent a collision is anything but a safety message: it’s a false sense of security.
And the website continues these themes: the “Brighten Up” page implores children to wear bright gear “so the cars can see you coming” and the “Safer Place to Cross” page reminds them that “cars can’t see you” (which, of course, is true; but that’s hardly the way it’s intended); while on the home page the instruction to “dress brightly in cool gear if it’s hospital you fear” reads as little more than a veiled threat.
But once you’re 11, Tales of The Road will leave you alone. So, what of the teenagers?
As the nights draw in, Newcastle is preparing once more to roll out its Ghost Street campaign. Here’s a trailer.
“It tells the story of Tabby, your average and seriously distracted teenager, living in a world of mp3 players, gossip and mobile phones until her distraction costs her dearly.”
Yup, it’s her distraction again.
Now, I confess I’ve not been able to see the full Ghost Street film, but news reports expand on the story:
“In the 10-minute film, the victims of road accidents, including a zombie skateboarder with half his face missing and a teenager too concerned with spoiling her hair to wear a cycle helmet, are doomed to stalk suburban streets forever.”
The theme is pretty clear again: fear is used as a tool to influence behaviour, and the normal behaviours of teenagers are fingered as the culprit. (Why re-engineer the road environment to avoid casualties when you can simply make it someone else’s fault?)
There have been previous complaints about Ghost Street (here’s just one example, though others are linked in the comments) but they’ve fallen on deaf ears. Newcastle City Council seem not only deaf but a little shy about it, too. Unlike Tales of The Road, they’re not brave enough to release the film itself to the general public. In recent years they’ve password-protected the Ghost Street website, and their response to the complaints appears to have vanished from their own site. When someone submitted a FOI request about the funding, the council denied all knowledge and said it was “funded by Road Safety GB”, while Road Safety GB (who are funded by The Department for Transport) claimed that it was “commissioned by Safe Newcastle and the city’s road safety team”. The production company (rather, an offshoot from the original production company, from where the original idea originated) claims to have produced the film for “the Safer [sic?] Newcastle Partnership”. As far as I can tell, Safe Newcastle turns out to be made up of bits of other public bodies; while “the city’s road safety team” is presumably part of—or at least the responsibility of—the council, and presumably so is Safe Newcastle itself, given that it states that it is “the city’s statutory community safety partnership and drug action team”. The film’s director, Steven Boyle, states that his client was Newcastle City Council.
The piping through which the public money has travelled is so convoluted it would warrant the services of Harry Tuttle. At times like these, with private firms getting paid for work that has no demonstrable public health benefit and the most prominent public body claiming to know nothing of the money, it’s hard not to wonder just where it starts looking like money laundering.
Wait, did I say “no demonstrable public health benefit”? We should probably question that.
Both Tales of The Road and Ghost Street are distributed nationally. So let’s take a look at the trend in national road casualties for children (under 16s), which is given in table RAS30036.
That’s pretty good, right? Overlooking the increase in 2014, everything’s on a pretty strong downward trend. Great. But let’s look closer.
Let’s normalise the casualties by the number of miles walked/cycled by children, both for all casualties and KSIs (killed or seriously injured, ie excluding slight injuries), using data from table NTS0605 (note that there’s a smaller range of annual data available for miles travelled).
Notice that it follows the curve quite nicely, but it gets a bit of a lift around 2009. Given the way we’ve derived that line, there’s an obvious reason for this, which becomes apparent from plotting the vanilla NTS0605 data.
Between 2009 and 2010, the average number of miles walked or cycled by children in the UK fell by about 10%, and then the trend returned to being broadly flat (albeit with a little more noise).
Using the data in table RAS30011 we can see what happened to the distribution of KSIs by mode of transport: those sustained by walking and cycling formed a larger part of the total after 2009.
This is the sort of change that is apparent in data from countries that have introduced helmet compulsion, in that it correlates with removing certain people from a set: those who address risk through behaviour rather than equipment, and for whom a valid behavioural change is to simply change mode of transport. By dissuading them out of a greater-risk (to self) group and into a lesser, the overall number of casualties falls. So, superficially, the intervention seems successful, but there is minimal effect on risk for those still in the original group. It’s a bit like addressing a restaurant’s food poisoning problem by confiscating a couple of chairs.
The step change demands explanation. Why did levels of active travel drop by around 10%? We have to consider the factors: the transport environment, people’s personal circumstances, distances to schools, and so on.
Most of these factors are hard to measure, but they’re also hard to see as likely explanations: they’re the sum of many individual parts, with considerable statistical noise and long-term trends (if at all) rather than step changes. Some data exist for schools, though, and we can test that hypothetical cause by checking table SFR16. If 2009 saw an anomalously high number of school closures through specific policy implementation, we’d expect pupil travel distances to increase and for this to result in a modal step change away from walking and cycling.
What we see is that 2009 was a quite normal year in a long-term trend of decreasing numbers of schools. Normalising those data by the number of pupils, we do see that 2009 started to see fewer schools per pupil due to a reversal of the previous decrease in pupil numbers, but that’s no indication of travel distance, and in any case it’s the start of a trend rather than an isolated step change: if this was causing the decline in walking and cycling, we’d expect those modes to continue in decline.
So perhaps we need to consider personal choice. Did something around 2009 cause a number of parents to change their minds about whether their children should walk and cycle? As it turns out, we have data for this, too.
The decision margin
Table NTS0616 shows that the proportion of children accompanied on the school run stayed virtually constant over the relevant period. What’s more, the percentage of parents that cited “traffic danger” as a reason for accompanying their children was broadly constant before 2009 and showed a downward trend after it.
This rather suggests that the reason for children walking and cycling less is not that their parents have decided that it became more dangerous for them to do so. Quite the opposite: the parents think that traffic danger is less of a reason. So, if the reason for the decline around 2009 is one of personal choice, it appears to be the choice of the children.
It might be hypothesised that around 10% of children are near what we might call the “decision margin”, in that they can be persuaded to come to a different conclusion relatively easily: in this case, to walk or cycle less. The road environment may change only gradually, but maybe the “decision environment”, at least for children, can be influenced more rapidly. And maybe that decision environment changed some time around 2009.
Oh, and one more thing…
Perhaps it’s time to tell our children: We Do Not Negotiate With Terrorists.