Speed kills, but is nowhere near as lethal as pollution in the short term, and carbon in the long term.
I recently paid £88.50 to join 8 strangers attending a 3-hour online Speed Awareness Course (SAC).
British readers will know this was not an act of altruism. For years now, UK police forces have offered motorists snapped by speed cameras the option of attending a SAC, instead of having penalty points docked from their driving licences.
Since the first pilot in Lancashire in 2003, police forces all over the country have adopted SACs. Well over 10 million (out of a population of 65M) have attended one. Last year, 1.5M million British drivers attended some kind of road safety course, a record.
As you might imagine, SACs are a topic of much debate, by drivers caught speeding.
No SACs please, we’re British
Search online for ‘Speed Awareness Courses’, and you soon detect the variations on the SAC theme.
Some drivers reckon driving on a UK motorway at 90mph is morally, if not legally, justified and the law is an antiquated ass. Modern automobiles are perfectly safe, they say. Germany, where they make all those super-safe cars, doesn’t have speed limits at all on its autobahn, so why have Brits been trundling along at a national limit of 70mph since 1965? But even if they disagree, these petrolheads grudgingly acknowledge 70 mph is the law of the land. Most choose to take a SAC instead of the points on their licence.
The Conspiracy Theorists
A more common refrain from affronted motorists is that SACs are ‘all just a money-making scam’. You often hear this from people who, like me, marginally triggered the legal threshold by the minimum amount, like driving at 36 mph in a 30 mph zone, or 56 mph on a short stretch of motorway where the usual speed limit is 70 mph but has been temporarily reduced to 50 mph for road works. They grumble they were just following the ‘flow’ of traffic, keeping a safe distance, it was at night, and the road workers had long gone home.
These types acknowledge the law is reasonable and justifiable, but object that the government misapplies it simply to generate funds (currently £1.6Bn annually).
The more conspiratorially-minded may speculate it’s also keeping the UK’s lucrative SAC industry, largely staffed by ex-coppers, in business, providing a nice little post-retirement earner.
You’ll also find plenty of newspaper articles, usually by regular columnists delighted to be gifted fresh material, and who may well have written the cost of the course off as ‘research’.
Some, like this one by the humourist Tim Dowling, are very funny. Some, like this 2015 BBC article, play it straight. Others, like this Daily Mail column by former Chancellor of the Exchequer-turned-rentagob-climate-denier Dominic Lawson, carry a tone of self-deprecating bonhomie.
But overall, the tone of people who’ve actually attended these SACs is one of grudging admiration for the way they’re conducted, and acknowledgement of their effectiveness in changing your driving behaviour in a safer direction.
Even the ’licence to print money’ brigade tend to acknowledge how they found these courses well-run, collegial, surprisingly instructive – even enjoyable.
A SACcess story
SACs are getting better and better. Delivered by accredited suppliers, they follow sophisticated training methodology, designed to engage and motivate even the most resistant attendee.
Most are conducted by ex-traffic police officers, selected for their empathetic manner. They bring personal experience of attending grisly road traffic accidents, which helps bring home the real-world consequences and ruined lives behind speeding’s bald statistics. They’re encouraged to adopt a friendly ‘we’re all sinners here’ manner, winning over cynical or resistant attendees as they deftly deliver carefully-constructed courses, featuring teamwork, mini-quizzes, and broadcast-quality videos.
SAC instructors don’t berate, they sympathise. They cluck in empathy, even sharing their own experiences of being on the receiving end of a SAC when caught speeding themselves. Their scripts are designed to elicit, not lecture, to educate, not punish. Attendees who show up expecting wrist-slapping or finger-wagging nearly all end up pursing their lips, raising their eyebrows, nodding in self-reflection.
Among these facts is a key SAC message – the astonishing success of these courses in reducing the number of people killed on British roads.
There’s no arguing with the facts. They’re striking enough to qualify for ‘not a lot of people know that’ status, the kind of nugget you file away for the next pub quiz, or dinner party conversation.
Here are a few such facts. For non-British readers, I’ve added a few more international comparisons than Brits get on their SACs, but much of the following is based on the copious notes I took during my course:
- Britain is pretty much the safest place to drive in the world, or at in the least top three. The UK vies with Norway, Sweden and Malta for Number One spot, but is arguably the most impressive, as it has vastly greater populations and car numbers.
- Americans are three times more likely to die in car crashes than Brits. This graphic shows the relative likelihood of Americans dying from various causes from car crashes to bee stings. Spoiler alert – cars kill more than ten times more Americans than guns.
- The UK has kept road traffic death stats since 1926. Road deaths peaked just before WW2 at around 9,000, when the UK population was around 50 million, dipped in the 50s and climbed sharply to 8,000 in the 60s, when cars became more commonplace.
- In the early 90s when seat belts were made compulsory, there was a sudden drop to around 4,000, which then plateaued.
- Annual road deaths plummeted again around 2006 when SACs were widely introduced, to between 1,500 and 2,000, and have barely fluctuated over the past decade.
UK government websites boast a rich and extensive array of statistical and analytic detail for road deaths. The number of things at which Britain can actually claim to be ‘world-beating’ is diminishing, but preventing road traffic deaths is definitely a jewel in the Crown.
The ideal annual road death total would of course be zero, but given that we drive cars, the UK has been an astonishing success story at driving traffic deaths as low as practically possible, and keeping them low. SACs are clearly a major contributor to this world-beating success.
So, where am I going with this?
A Screeching Halt
Consulting my notes from my course, I noted this exchange.
Instructor: ‘More people are killed by air pollution than driving’.
Me: ‘Really. How many more?’
Instructor: ‘A lot. But we don’t have time to discuss pollution.
This was delivered as a drive-by kind of ’well-fancy-that’ fact, but it brought me to a screeching halt.
While keeping half an ear on the next part of the presentation (‘Motorways are the life-blood of our economy…’.) I discreetly checked the actual numbers. It turned out there were plenty of official government statistics on air pollution deaths, too.
The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs website explained there are 4 main causes of air pollution: domestic wood and coal-burning stoves, industrial combustion, solvent use & industrial processes, and road transport.
Bearing in mind I was paying £88.50 to attend a Speed Awareness Course in order to avoid statutory regulation punishment for a problem that killed around 1,600 people every year, I wondered how many Brits die from air pollution every year.
A bit more surreptitious Googling pointed me to a Public Health England webpage with its 2019 estimate that air pollution killed around 20 times as many people as died in road traffic accidents.
Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, with between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year attributed to long-term exposure. There is strong evidence that air pollution causes the development of coronary heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease and lung cancer, and exacerbates asthma.
Why, it struck me, are we not all attending Pollution Awareness Courses?
Or more to the point, given that the root of nearly all air pollution involves burning fossil fuels, and carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and other carbon molecules or morsels are our biggest killers, why are we not all attending Carbon Awareness Courses?
Facts, SACs & CACs
In order to ‘pass’ the Speed Awareness Course, and avoid penalty point punishment, you need to demonstrate that you’ve been paying a minimal level of attention.
After this air pollution bombshell, my mind started wandering. No one else appeared to be scribbling notes at the rate I was. We all ‘passed’, anyway.
I was scribbling a transcription of what was being said, but substituting the word ‘carbon’ every time the instructor said ‘speed’. I was imagining what it might sound like were we all attending a Carbon Awareness Course, and not a SAC. While we were ticking the box for understanding the laws of motion as applied to braking distances, I imagined we were talking about atmospheric physics.
It felt increasingly surreal. Here are some of my notes:
‘It’s about the laws of physics’
‘It’s a potentially lethal machine’
‘It’s how physics plays out’
We were then shown a ‘hockey stick curve’ graph, plotting the risk of driver fatality against vehicle impact speed. It looked identical to the graph showing the sudden spike in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere coinciding with the Industrial Revolution featured in Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth documentary. Some more out-of-context quotes I wrote down:
- ‘Is it really all worth it, just to get there a bit quicker?’
- ‘Getting angry will only make things worse’
- ‘Reclaim your safety bubble’
- ‘Complacency is our biggest enemy’
- ‘Stay in the zone between ‘drifting off’ and ‘overload’’
- ‘Our main barriers to behaviour change are ‘old habits’, ‘unwilling to change’, and a ‘don’t care’ attitude’.
- ‘Our problem is not thinking about what we’re doing’
- ‘We should ignore the crowd, not worry about what others are thinking or doing, and just focus on the evidence’
Replace ‘speed’ with ‘carbon, and you enter a parallel universe. You become present, but not present, participating in a Carbon Groundhog Day, where you’re the only person aware of the ironies and doublethink emerging, blithely, from everyone else’s mouths.
So here’s my modest proposal. Let’s focus on the evidence. Let’s reclaim our safety bubble. Let’s think about what we’re doing. Let’s recognise complacency as our biggest enemy. The consequences of our fossil fuel addiction are many orders of magnitude more serious, and lethal, than the risk of dying, or killing someone, in a road traffic accident.
Why do we expend such a disproportionate amount of time, money, resources, energy, legislation, public education etc. on making a barely perceptible marginal difference to a minor problem that’s already fundamentally solved, while ignoring the cataclysm that’s taking place around us?
Knowing what we now know, speed awareness courses are like checking the batteries in our smoke alarms while the house is burning around us. Sure, it’s an achievable goal, and it gives us something to do. It’s just futile, given the vastly more urgent and massive risk our carbon addition had created. A few years ago, before we were aware of the inferno in the attic, such precautions could justifiably have been considered prudent, sensible, a matter of common sense.
Now, knowing what we know, it seems delusional.