Source: TRL, Dr. S. Helman
In a recent article, TRL notes that UK speed limits are in the news once again, with articles featuring a common narrative. While those implementing the new ‘default 20mph’ policy in Wales have been discussing its safety benefits, parties that oppose it are describing it as a ‘war on the motorist‘.
TRL believes that when UK politicians use the phrase ‘war on the motorist,’ they may assume they are using a phrase that is commonly used or that it has been revealed in focus groups as doing the best job of appealing to different viewpoints. The advisory organisation doubts that many using this phrase stop to think about its connotations, and gives examples of two ways the phrase is misguided and perhaps can be offensive.
Firstly, it uses a word – ‘war’ – that is seen as synonymous with violence, with the meaning directed at car drivers who are relatively safe from harm in lower-speed collisions, instead of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users who are more likely to suffer violent injuries. TRL adds that injuries sustained by some vulnerable road users in collisions with vehicles can be similar to injuries sustained by combatants in wars and are often substantial (even at 30mph). They suggest that UK politicians can improve their credibility through language in this context. Instead of talking about a 20mph speed limit as a (figurative) ‘war on the motorist,’ they could discuss a 30mph limit as a (literal) ‘war on the pedestrian’ in terms of the injuries sustained from collisions.
Secondly, TRL analyses data on deaths in service for the UK armed forces – on the people who fight in wars – and notes that historically ‘land traffic accidents’ are one of the top causes of death, even in years with active conflicts like the war in Afghanistan. When there is a backdrop of active conflict, the use of the word ‘war’ to describe the inconveniences of car drivers driving at 20mph could be seen as inappropriate, as road traffic collisions are a significant source of danger for people employed in real wars to protect national interests.
TRL notes that if politicians advocate for higher speed limits, it could be seen as advocating for more collisions, and more severe injury outcomes. By using the phrase ‘war on the motorist’ it is suggested they not only offend but also draw attention away from the substantial injuries caused by road traffic collisions. It’s advised that more needs to be done in a wider debate about how language is used in this context by stakeholders.
TRL states further that the real debate is larger than language. The question of why violence and injury from road traffic is not treated in the same way as violence and injury from other sources needs to be addressed – using a true systems-based approach with known evidence-based interventions. Others have also written on this broad challenge. In 2002 for example a whole issue of the British Medical Journal was devoted to it (editorial here). This paper from 2013 discusses the topic, focusing on societal acceptance of road traffic injury as an inevitable consequence of cars, and how its a necessary narrative for cars to stay dominant in the transport mix. TRL adds that, in 2023 there is now a more even narrative with, for example, emphasis on pedestrian protection being a core part of vehicle safety. In a world where road traffic collisions are killing around 5-6 times more people a year than asbestos-related diseases, a field in which it took decades for clear evidential links to be acted upon, there is clearly still a lot to be done.
And even if the debate is larger than language, language is still important in the debate. TRL concludes that in British society, injury and death should be seen as avoidable violence, rather than use metaphors that defend a resistance to change. And it is hoped that those who walk and cycle around traffic all the time will see it literally slow down.