The Mail on Sunday

What really drives the rise in child safety


LAST week I mentioned the extraordin­ary power of the old zebra crossings, in the days when we knew that we had a duty to stop at them without being scared into doing so by traffic lights and cameras. Not that these work so well.

A few weeks ago, I was almost kil l ed by a driver, probably drugged, who drove straight through a red light at high speed. Luckily ( f or me anyway), I realised in time he was not going to stop and jumped clear. My enemies, who hate the past, deliberate­ly misunderst­ood this point as a wholly different thing. They thought I was claiming that road safety was in general better in those days. I had not actually said this, because it is not true.

In the age before seatbelts, antilock brakes, airbags and the rest, the roads were far more dangerous for people who were actually in cars. But the second part of this story is an illustrati­on of just how careful you have to be with statistics. For the number of road deaths among children has also fallen hugely. So that must mean the roads are safer, mustn’t it? But it does not.

What actually happened, in the period between 1970 and 1990, was that children in this country stopped walking and cycling to school because their parents were too scared of the raging traffic to let them. Hence the modern curse (when schools are open) of schoolgate congestion. In 1971, 80 per cent of children aged seven and eight were allowed to go to school on their own. By 1990, the figure had fallen to nine per cent.

The researcher­s, Hillman, Adams and Whitelegg, concluded: ‘Road accidents involving children have declined not because the roads are safer but because children can no longer be exposed to the dangers they pose.’

No figure should be examined without context, or assumed to mean what it appears to mean.

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