Geoff LambertonEthically Speaking

The immorality of road carnage

We are all saddened by the tragic loss of young lives on our roads. Recently, I have heard discussions on radio talk-back shows identifying the need for better education of young drivers, suggesting more rigorous testing and further restrictions. If these measures lead to a reduction in the number of road accidents we would certainly support them.

But I cant but help but think we are missing a fundamental point. The number of road accidents involving other (than young) drivers is also unacceptable. To reduce the incidence of young driver accidents to the average of all other driver accidents is not the desired outcome. We must go further and find transport systems that sustain the health and well-being of society and the natural environment on which we are totally dependent.

One tool for resolving ethical issues is to consider the likely consequences of an action. If the positives outweigh the negatives, then the action is deemed a good action. A major problem with this approach is that many consequences are impossible to predict in advance.

Lets go back to the decision to mass produce the Model T Ford at the start of the last century. If society knew in advance that our reliance on commercial petrol driven vehicles would lead to horrendous accidents and loss of life, be a major contributing factor to global warming, increase air pollution and associated human health problems (respiratory illness, cancer etc) and destroy natural wildlife and its habitat, would society have sanctioned production and distribution of these vehicles and allowed public transport systems to deteriorate?

Amory Lovins, a promoter of the concept of natural capitalism, recognises that motor vehicles are poorly designed. He suggests, only half jokingly, that exhaust pipes should be turned into the vehicle; why should drivers be allowed to point a toxic cocktail of chemical emissions at pedestrians? Of course we wouldnt drive conventional cars if we were forced to directly breathe the emissions. But every time we go for a walk in our cities or suburbs we do just that.

The good news is that we have the technology to produce sustainable motor vehicles. Sustainability requires cars to be safe, non-polluting, providing the necessary function (transport services) at a viable price. The bad news is that we are addicted to current patterns of behaviour, and the huge investment in the infrastructure that supports the conventional motor vehicle industry. Change on a large scale is never easy.

Sustainable motor vehicles will be designed with a maximum speed around 80kms, travel at 40-50km around town, and be constructed from soft, renewable materials such as new generation plastics, hemp and rubber. They will be propelled by hydrogen, biodiesel or compressed air with the only emissions being water vapour or clean air. These low speed, non-polluting and safe vehicles are not suited to longer journeys. Sustainable mobility policy also includes larger scale public options to transport people between cities and rural areas.

Now here is the critical ethical issue. The sustainable transport system described above is not a dream. It reflects new technology available today. But it sounds like fantasy doesnt it? Why do we choose to continue our commitment to current dangerous technologies rather than making the necessary changes to our lifestyles and the switch to sustainable technology? We know how to do it but we dont seem to have the motivation to do it. How much more destruction is required before our priorities change?

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