Our roads are today’s open sewers of the 19th century

London transport city smog pollution

Future generations will react to today’s ambivalence towards road danger in the same way as we recoil at the thought of the open sewers of Victorian London. So says Danny Dorling,  a professor from Sheffield University argues road safety is a public health not a transport issue, and until it is properly addressed people will continue to die.

Fear of road danger reduces the number of people cycling and walking, which in turn has detrimental effects on public health – asthma, obesity and stress-related illnesses to name a few.

Professor Dorling compares road danger to the open sewers of the 19th century, or smoking in the first half of the 20th century. Until these dangers were taken seriously as public health concerns, people continued to die. Dorling argues that road danger reduction should be taken out of the Department of Transport and moved in to the Department of Health; road safety needs to be managed by the people concerned with saving lives, not those focused on keeping people moving.

It’s easy to assume that road danger relates only to the deaths and injuries caused by crashes. However the polluted air produced by motorised traffic is a silent killer.

Our poisoned air affects all of us, no matter our age and recent studies highlights the damage extending far beyond the lungs. Earlier this year, research revealed that air pollution causes a significant reduction in intelligence – equivalent to missing an entire year of education. And it appears that air pollution may even damage our health before we are even born. Scientists at Queen Mary University of London have found evidence that nanoparticles of airborne soot make their way via a pregnant women’s lungs to lodge in the placentas – researchers say it is quite possible the particles entered the foetuses too.

city traffic

A study of over half a million births in London, published last year, confirmed a link between air pollution during pregnancy and low birth weight (and the resulting health complications throughout life) leading doctors to say the implications for many millions of women are “something approaching a public health catastrophe”.

| “If air pollution is put on the death certificate of a child who has died, that – in political and policy terms – has huge ramifications.”

The government acknowledges that over 30,000 people in Britain die early due to air pollution but there appears to be refusal to move from acceptance of tens of thousands of abstract deaths to the identification of any named ones. This might be linked to liability; if the government’s routine failure to meet pollution limits could be tied to specific deaths, it could find itself facing claims for compensation.

Ella Kissi-Debrah lived near the busy south circular road in London and was only nine when she died as a result of severe asthma. A new inquest into her death  could result in Ella becoming the first person to have toxic air given as their cause of death.

Stephen Holgate, professor of immunopharmacology at Southampton University, who has taken a fresh look at Ella’s medical records and concluded there is a “real prospect that without illegal levels of air pollution Ella would not have died”.

The case could have far reaching implications for millions affected by polluted air. According to London assembly member and Green party national spokesperson for transport, Caroline Russell,  “If air pollution is put on the death certificate of a child who has died, that – in political and policy terms – has huge ramifications.”

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The ETA was established in 1990 as an ethical provider of green, reliable travel services. Twenty six years on, we continue to offer cycle insurance, travel insurance and breakdown cover while putting concern for the environment at the heart of all we do.

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