Areas of grave concern

Austin Williams | 23 Nov 2002

Why are children in poor neighbourhoods more at risk of traffic accidents?  In an article that originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph, Austin Williams investigates.

Children in poor areas are at more risk of being knocked down by a car than those 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, carried out in conjunction with Imperial College London and funded in part by the Guild of Experienced Motorists, writes Austin Williams.

But is this 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. Not to be too mean-spirited, there are still shortfalls in data and, to smooth things along slightly, the researchers have made a few computational adjustments to fine-tune statistical anomalies and ensure that the increased casualty rates are confirmed as purely “an effect of deprivation”.

That said, what of the findings? Well, apart from the fact that that a local study of 30 wards in Edinburgh in 1996 made the same assertions, 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 the 1980s. 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 the authors are happy to make long-term recommendations. During both years, the number of child pedestrian road accident fatalities was 107, and serious injuries in the same catchment area were 3,350 and 3,119 respectively (a reduction of seven per cent in one year). Furthermore, of the 8,115 wards in England, 2,500 wards documented no child pedestrian casualties at all (of any severity) and 2,500 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, “disadvantaged areas” used to refer to economically poor districts, 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), medical facilities (health deprivation) or adequate school provision (educational deprivation).

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 (presumably meaning traditional economic poverty) was associated with the opposite – high child casualties/lower adult casualties. Pick the bones out of that.

In fact, the report’s claim that “an extra 10cm of rain results in a seven per cent 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 and it is dangerous to presume otherwise.

After all this, the report finally gets to the point and examines the reduction in accident rates documented in speed-calmed areas, using Webster and Mackie’s 1999 study of just 72 such areas (which itself didn’t examine the displacement effects of traffic restraint).

Using this pretext, Hull, a deprived area described as the “traffic calming capital of Britain” with more than 100 schemes covering half of the city’s road network, is hailed as the future. Even though the research only examined the results from 13 speed-calmed 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, the answer is surely 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 richer children do, 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 a fashionable view among lobbyists with the ear of government. Nowadays, big ideas of social progress are deemed too difficult. Forcing people to change their behaviour is thought to be much, much easier.

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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