Montreal, June 7, 2003  /  No 125  
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Ralph Maddocks is a retired textile executive and former management consultant. He lives in Cowansville, Quebec.
by Ralph Maddocks
          The other day, while sitting fuming at an independently minded red traffic light with no cross traffic in sight for miles and being unable to turn right under the newly proclaimed law of Quebec which permits it, I had plenty of time for reflection. I wondered why the bureaucretins who drafted this law, along with those who approved it, had spent so much of their time and our money doing so. Unlike most jurisdictions in North America, Quebec has taken a long time to conclude that its citizens might be, just possibly, sufficiently intelligent to exercise the judgement required to assess whether or not to avail oneself of the opportunity to make a right turn when a traffic light is red. 
          The government of Quebec spent years agonising over this momentous question and then followed their reflections by consultations, the latter word being a favourite of the PQ government. It is a process which involves an elaborate pantomime wherein the government is able to claim that a decision was made with the participation of those affected, when in fact the decision was already made beforehand. In other words, it is a device to grant spurious democratic legitimacy to government decisions. The government then, appearing to base its actions upon the people's wishes, promulgated a law in this sense. A law which in effect allowed any municipal authority to decide whether to permit the dreaded act or not. In other words, if your local Town Council thinks they were elected by, and hence represent, a bunch of wayward simpletons they may choose to forbid turning right when the traffic light is red. 
          All the citizens of, and visitors to the city of Montreal were adjudged to be far too simple minded to be allowed any opportunity at all to act like other North Americans and nowhere on that island is it allowed to make right turns when a traffic light is red. Visitors from jurisdictions where turning right on a red is legal and practised are adjudged to have lost their faculties immediately upon entering the city. Where the act is not permitted, a sign has been added at each intersection clearly forbidding one to make such a turn. Yet one more pictograph for the bewildered driver to look for as he or she slaloms among the potholes and crevasses of Quebec's roads and streets. According to a newspaper article I read, between 4,000 and 5,000 such prohibitory signs have been manufactured and have been placed at intersections, although it was denied strenuously that anyone associated with the government held shares in the company manufacturing them. 
          The Quebec driver now has the pleasure of driving through a town, where no right turns are permitted at any time, to arrive shortly in another town where, with perhaps a few exceptions, he may choose to do so or not. This aspect of choice adds yet another complication in that a driver need not avail him or herself of the prerogative to turn right on a red light and the driver behind who wishes to do so is obliged to stop and wait until the traffic light turns green. It is an offence to encourage the first driver to turn by any means, especially sounding one's horn impatiently, although drivers slow off the mark when the light does eventually turn green will have noted that similar sanctions are not applied under such circumstances. All in all, the new law seems to have been a complete waste of time and the taxpayers' money, and arguably has created more confusion than existed before. Perhaps though they are more Machiavellian than I first thought and it is all really a devious scheme to raise even more money from the unsuspecting grossly overtaxed motorist, all in the name of preventing accidents happening to the mindless taxpayers of Quebec. 
Saved from ourselves 
          As I continued to wait for that red light to change I wondered how it is that I have managed to survive more or less intact for so many years without the government telling me how to conduct my life. It seems to me that we are now living in a new world where we are to be saved from ourselves, a movement doubtless fuelled by the health fascists and the politically correct. Recently, I discovered that there is actually an association called the Global Road Safety Partnership (GRSP), a self described partnership between business, civil society and governmental organizations collaborating to improve road safety conditions around the world. Initiated by the World Bank Group – who else, they need to waste our money somehow – in February 1999, the GRSP has been identifying ways in which they could work together to improve road safety globally. The GRSP Secretariat is hosted by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies at its headquarters in that Swiss city, home to so many other snouts at the trough of the taxpayers' money, Geneva. 
          The Partnership is run by a Steering Committee, assisted by a small Secretariat and claims that some 200 organizations have taken an active role in establishing the GRSP and it is now at work in over 10 countries. The GRSP claims that each year, worldwide, almost 1 million persons are killed and over 20 million injured in road accidents, 75 per cent of which occur in developing and transition countries which account for only 32 per cent of motor vehicles in use. They claim too that the economic losses incurred amount to US$ 500 billion worldwide, double the amount spent on overseas development assistance. The World Health Organisation has reported that global deaths from road traffic accidents do amount to about 1.2 million. However, it compared them also to the 1.5 million deaths from tuberculosis, 2.2 million from neonatal death, 2.3 million from AIDS and bronchitis, 5.1 million from stroke and 7.4 million from coronary heart disease. If you die from a stroke or coronary heart disease then that's all right, just don't get hit by a moving vehicle or the GRSP will be very unhappy. 
          In its May 2002 issue of the BMJ, the British Medical Association published an article entitled "War on the Roads" which highlighted the toll of road deaths and injuries as a public health issue and claimed that pedestrians, cyclists, and other vulnerable road users are pitted against the powers that stand to profit from increasing global motorisation(1). They made the claim that by the year 2020 road traffic crashes will have moved from ninth to third place in the world ranking of the burden of disease and will be in second place in developing countries. The article made no mention of the fact that very few of the pedestrians or cyclists involved in road accidents are killed on divided highways (Autoroutes, Autostrada, Motorways or Throughways) where traffic is separated into streams. Most road accidents occur in cities, towns and villages where cyclists and pedestrians are in effect being used to slow down vehicular traffic, which cynical governments everywhere have realised is a much cheaper alternative to building new and divided highways. 
     « Now it might stretch one's imagination just a little to envisage being assaulted and injured by one's own socks or tights, or attacked by an errant potato. However, if these incidents are not "accidents" at all but "preventable, non-random events," then it requires even greater imagination to envisage the preventative measures needed to avoid them. »
          Oddly, for a medical journal, the article did not consider it pertinent to point out that in the UK over 5,000 patients die each year from infections caught in hospitals which they did not have when admitted, compared to only 3,400 UK road deaths. One might be forgiven for wondering just what the BMA's life saving priorities really are. Perhaps such infections are, as an earlier BMA report described them, not accidents but "preventable, non-random events." From the time when, as a boy aged ten, I rode my bicycle a total of 60 miles in one day to visit the seaside and returned exhausted to my inland home, I enjoyed cycling very much. Later, in my adolescence, I rode my bicycle throughout the length and breadth of Great Britain and I did all this without the slightest incident. I never hit, nor was I hit by a pedestrian, nor was I hit by a moving vehicle, or even by any telephone pole, tree or lamppost ever-ready to leap out upon the unwary cyclist. As far as I can recall some sixty years later, neither did any of my cycling friends. Miraculously, we all accomplished this without ever wearing one of those inverted bedpans on our heads, or any of those other protective devices which are now mandated by most Nanny States. In fact, wearing such a monstrosity would have resulted in instant ridicule and condemned the wearer to instant classification as a wimp, a term which in those pre-PC days meant a soft girl, nearly the same as today's "weak, cowardly, or ineffectual person." 
Highly exaggerated benefits 
          Many studies have been carried out to establish the extent to which the wearing of helmets by cyclists reduces the incidence and severity of head injuries in the event of accident. Most of them seeming to conclude that helmets are highly desirable. However, looking a little more closely at some of the results, one comes across passages such as this from a UK study(2). "That conclusion [that helmets are highly desirable] would be warranted if it were also supported by evidence about the effect on cycling behaviour of wearing a helmet. The studies assume that behaviour is unaffected. That assumption is not justified. The likelihood is that when wearing a helmet cyclists feel less vulnerable and therefore ride less cautiously. As a result, they are more likely to have an accident. Consequently, the benefits attributed to helmets by the studies are at best highly exaggerated. At worst, wearing a helmet may expose cyclists to greater danger. Wearing a helmet only marginally reduces the extent of head injury following collision with a motor vehicle. Thus, cyclists who wear a helmet do so with an inflated idea of its protective properties. Indeed, this illusion is encouraged by road safety campaigners and helmet manufacturers who set out to persuade cyclists that they will be safer with a helmet, using all the techniques of modern advertising. Cyclists are not warned of the limited benefit provided by a helmet in an accident with a motor vehicle." 
          The report continued, "An appropriate solution to the problem of serious accidents to cyclists requires an understanding of the circumstances in which accidents occur. Cyclists rarely ride into motor vehicles. It is motor vehicles driven without sufficient care which are the source of most of the danger and which pose the threat to the life and limb of cyclists. Calling on cyclists to increase their safety by wearing a helmet shifts responsibility away from the drivers, the agents of accidents, on to cyclists who are nearly always the victims. Were cycle helmets to be made compulsory, it would reinforce public perceptions of the bicycle as a dangerous form of transport and encourage the view that cyclists are responsible for their own injury. The weight of evidence is against the introduction of a statutory requirement on cyclists to wear a helmet. Moreover, where a cycle helmet law has been introduced, it has led to a substantial reduction in cycling. That represents a public and private loss because cycling is such an efficient, healthy and environmentally-friendly form of transport. The weight of evidence is also against the encouragement of cyclists to wear helmets. Cycle helmets are a means of slightly reducing head injury if an accident occurs. Wearing a helmet does nothing to prevent accidents. The primary means of reducing serious head injury among cyclists is to create an environment in which accidents are less likely to happen." Quite so. 
          A similar study in Australia concluded, "There is an indication that increased helmet wearing in the post-law period has not been as effective in reducing the risk of head injury to crash-involved cyclists as would have been predicted from relationships observed during pre-law years."(3) Not that any of this has resulted in any of our Nanny States stopping their headlong rush into creating their imaginary cocoons for us all. 
Preventable, non-random events 
          Now it is undeniably true that people do injure and kill themselves and others, both intentionally and unintentionally, and this has an obvious impact on each country's medical treatment costs. There must have been something in the air early in this century, because the year before, in June 2001, the British Medical Association report mentioned earlier titled Injury Prevention, claimed that injury was "Britain's biggest child killer." The report went on to say that injuries accounted for more than half of the deaths in the15 to 24 year age bracket, and that treating injuries accounted for at least 5 percent of National Health Service expenditure. The BMA seemed to be suggesting that "injury" should become a new category in formulating government policy. Currently there is no policy organised around injury as such – there are just murders, suicides, people falling down staircases, food poisonings, and automobile accidents, etc. Different government departments take measures to prevent, or deal with the effects of some of these injuries. So that improving the safety of cars and roads, for instance, would be the responsibility of a different department than would suggested improvements in food safety. 
          The BMA report suggested the creation of an agency for injury prevention in each of the four UK countries, to be headed by a single government minister. An idea sure to appeal to any ambitious backbencher seeking promotion. The proposed agencies would have the responsibility for co-ordinating strategy in different areas and in particular they would target vulnerable groups, such as the young and the elderly. Their main function then would be to try to ensure that safety comes first, in every area of UK life. Curiously, the BMA also seemed to be redefining the concept of injury. According to the BMA press release, most injuries are not the result of "accidents," but "preventable, non-random events." The report went on to propose a comprehensive research strategy, to work out why people injure themselves and how this can be prevented. 
          The magnitude of this task seems not to have been fully understood. Indeed, according to the UK Home and Leisure Accident Surveillance System report, in 1999 there were 10,773 hospitalisations caused by socks and tights, 13,132 injuries inflicted by vegetables, and 1,810 involving tree trunks! Now it might stretch one's imagination just a little to envisage being assaulted and injured by one's own socks or tights, or attacked by an errant potato. However, if these incidents are not "accidents" at all but "preventable, non-random events," then it requires even greater imagination to envisage the preventative measures needed to avoid them. Apart that is from promulgating total bans on the wearing of all hosiery by both sexes and the growing of potatoes. These proposals are being taken too far and are in effect treating grown people like children. 
          All around us there are things which have the potential to cause us harm. My television set or other household appliance could have a short circuit and electrocute me, my car's gas tank could explode in hot weather, I could fall down the stairs in my house, etc. – there are so many opportunities for harm which present themselves each day, but these are risks which we all must accept. Thus far the majority of us remain unscathed. When my children and grandchildren were very young we used stair-gates to prevent them from falling down the stairs because we knew that they did not have the necessary experience to negotiate steep flights of stairs and lacked the experience to recognise the dangers involved. As an adult I am assumed to be able to cope with the potential danger represented by a flight of stairs and if I miss my step, as I did the other day, then it was an accident not a "preventable, non-random event." It would only be preventable if I never ascended or descended a flight of stairs. 
          There are many aspects of today's world which annoy me and the health fascists who would save us from ourselves are fast approaching the top of my list. We are told almost hourly about the serious health hazards which lurk around us in our water supplies, in the air, the soil, beverages, food, marijuana, cellular phones, second-hand tobacco smoke, food irradiation and fast food, not to mention television and movies, the Internet, video games and so on. And yet people in North America today live longer than ever before. Is there no end to the proposals of those who believe they know better than we do what is good for us? 
1. I. Robert, D. Mohan, K. Abbasi, "War on the roads," BMJ, May 11, 2002.  >>
2. Mayer Hillman, "Cycle Helmets: The Case for and Against," 1993.  >>
3. M. Cameron, L. Heiman, D. Neiger, "Evaluation of the Bicycle Helmet Wearing Law in Victoria During its First 12 Months," Monash University Accident Research Centre – Report #32.  >>
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