Even natural deaths are devastating. Those bereaved by crashes deserve better.

My mother died last week. As deaths go, this was a “good one”. It came at the end of a long life, after a short illness, with her pain managed by professionals. I was able to be at her side the last few days and hold her hand as she faded away.

Those bereaved by crashes have none of this. Without any warning, their loved ones just one day do not come home.  Their children, partners and parents lose decades of life, their shared future destroyed in violent and often easily avoidable circumstances.

My mother did not have her life stolen from her. She was not killed by the selfish actions of another. We did not have to fight the justice system to find out how she died, or even to get her body back. Not like the bereaved mother I spoke to just before my mother’s death.  She had been told by the coroner that she should be grateful to the driver for paying for the second post-mortem, as otherwise he would not have released her daughter’s body for burial. That’s right, grateful to the man arrested for Causing (her daughter’s) Death by Dangerous Driving, a fact which the coroner would have known.

Such insensitivity is not unique to this case or to coroners. Official literature often ignores road deaths. The MOJ’s Guide to Inquests references murder and manslaughter but not road death. Likewise, the draft CPS Charging Standards for Driving Incidents refers families bereaved by law breaking drivers to the guidance for homicide families. But road deaths greatly outnumber murder and manslaughter in both inquests and criminal prosecutions. Families of road deaths deserve their own guidance, and to be mentioned in official guides.

But we enter 2013 with hope. At a meeting just before Christmas, Helen Grant, the Victims’ Minister, assured us that she was aware of how road crash victims had been ignored by the justice system and how this needed to change. The appointment of Baroness Newlove as the new Victims’ Commissioner should also help as she has previously shown empathy, understanding and outrage of the plight of road crash victims.

Even though my mother’s death was timely, and a better option than the alternatives, it was still devastating and I am overwhelmed by the sense of loss and finality.  All a reminder of how unimaginable and terrible the toll is on those suddenly bereaved by road death. Families bereaved by crashes face the same loss and devastation as those bereaved by murder but without the same respect from the justice system. They deserve better.

The War on Britain’s Roads

In December BBC1 aired the documentary The War on Britain’s Roads, which promised to ‘parachute the viewer into the middle of the battle that is raging between two-wheeled road users and their four-wheeled counterparts’. RoadPeace Chair Cynthia Barlow was a key contributor to this film, bravely sharing her experience of her daughter’s death and her campaigning since then.

In the run up to the broadcast there was much debate and criticism of this programme, mainly before it had been aired, and before some had even seen it. Accusations of irresponsible journalism, victim blaming and stereotyping led many to condemn the programme, as ‘endangering cyclists by stereotyping them as reckless’.

We shared their concerns. As the national charity for road crash victims, we spend much of our time countering victim-blaming within the criminal justice system, and the media. RoadPeace is also committed to promoting cycling and walking, benign forms of travel that help public health, happiness and the environment.

But we welcomed this programme as an opportunity to highlight the unacceptable level of road danger faced by those who walk and cycle in our highly motorised cities, and the measures that we know exist to reduce these.

Is there a war on the roads?

Over ten years ago the BMJ dedicated the May 11 2002 issue to the War on the Roads. The editorial, from RoadPeace Patron Professor Ian Roberts, stated:  ‘War is often waged by the powerful on the weak. In this case, the interests of pedestrians, cyclists, and other vulnerable road users are pitted against the powers that stand to profit from increasing global motorisation’.

The language of war is problematic for some. There is no doubt that a programme focusing on conflict and danger between cyclists and motorists risks undermining an agenda of promoting cycling as a safe and healthy activity. There are worries that it will put off some from cycling.

But there are others for whom their daily experience of using our roads, whether on bike or foot, leads them to agree that a war is playing out daily on our streets. Whether that is through fear or intimidation, or worse.

Whatever you think about a war on our roads, one thing is certain. Every day there are casualties. Each and every day five people are killed on our roads, and over 2000 are injured. Lives are cut short, unfulfilled, and many more families and friends devastated by a sudden traumatic bereavement.

We also know these deaths are preventable. Our transport system poses an unacceptably high risk to vulnerable road users, and then our justice system treats them unfairly. Founded on road danger reduction, we believe the solution to safer roads involves tackling danger at source, and that those who pose the greater risk have a greater duty of care to others.

We leave the final word to Cynthia: ‘I hope that what people remember from The War on Britain’s Roads is that road deaths are preventable.  Last year 1901 people were killed on our roads and more than 80 000 were seriously injured. We should not, cannot, tolerate this level of carnage on our roads and we don’t need to.  We can prevent this. Whether we are professional drivers, motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, or all of the above, we all have the responsibility to protect others from harm when they share our space.’