Monday, 4 January 2010

The hidden threat of shoes

From the BBC:

With a top walking speed of around 4 miles per hour, you might think it was hard to walk dangerously. No official statistics exist for the number of accidents involving walkers, but there are tales from around the country of people walking into lampposts, along busy roads, and even people walking off railway platforms. There have even been injuries to other pedestrians.

Since shoes are exempt from the Road Traffic Act, the police have been powerless to act against their wearers.

The level of concern is such that in February a committee of MPs will begin an inquiry looking at safety implications. One of the issues they will examine is whether shoe wearers should get some kind of formal training before going out on to the streets.

The idea is already being put into practice by Norfolk Police and a handful of other forces. "In the market place if you speak to the traders they will always tell you a tale of their vegetables being knocked over or people being run into by pedestrians," says Penny Carpenter, of Norfolk Police.

Jeff Ennis MP (Barnsley East & Mexborough, Labour) is hoping for a debate on the issue in the House of Commons later this month. "Although retailers do give some kind of training it is by no means mandatory," he says. "So what I think we need is some kind of cycle proficiency test for shoes." On top of that he believes a "three-strikes-and-you-are-out" rule should be enforced to weed those who prove to be a danger to themselves and everyone else.

Unsurprisingly there is some dissent from users. Many agree something needs to be done to improve safety, but most are wary of any threat to take away their shoes.

No, that wasn't actually the article. This is the real article, in which the BBC reports on concerns about mobility scooter users (they've allowed comments, with predictable results) under the headline "A mobility scooter menace?" with link text elsewhere on the site "3-wheeled threat". Lovely.

The thinking around this, of course, is packed full of ableism and looking at the issue from entirely the wrong perspective, which leads Jeff Ennis MP to his draconian and inhumane proposals.

  • Cycling, to which this MP makes a comparison, is really not the same. Driving, to which he makes an implicit comparison, is even less comparable. He's suggesting with "three strikes" that there be a tougher threshold for scooter users than for drivers - which considering the significant difference in the consequences of accidents is completely unjustifiable. Taking away someone's only realistic means of leaving their house should be reserved for people who actually need placing under house arrest (criminalising people for being disabled is not new, of course).
  • There are no statistics currently being collected. All there is instead is a collection of anecdotes, which have a large amount of selection bias. "I was knocked aside by someone jogging to catch the bus" never makes it as a newspaper story. How dangerous are pedestrians, both to each other and to scooter users? It's also not known, so let's ban shoes as a precautionary measure, okay? Even despite this selection bias, very few serious accidents are recorded.
  • The training courses are a good idea, of course, for those who want them. Reading the description, though, notice how many of the challenges might be realistic but are avoidable by better urban design and practice. Why is the parking space so narrow and after a sharp left turn? Who left all of these roadworks signs in the way in the first place? Shouldn't the pedestrians also be getting training in "pavement ettiquete"?
  • Notice that most of the descriptions of accidents - collisions with objects, driving in unsafe places - involve only risk to property or the scooter user themselves. That's risk that should be reduced if possible, of course - but not by confining the scooter user to their home! There have been a few serious injuries and deaths - but probably no more than are caused by pedestrians or cyclists, and massively fewer than the thousands each year caused by motor vehicles.

    As a pedestrian I've walked into various pieces of street furniture, and the occasional wall, on several occasions. I've also accidentally jostled people in crowds. More than three times, too!

  • I find extremely dubious the assertion that it is impossible to prosecute scooter users for the accidents they cause. It may not be possible to prosecute under the Road Traffic Act, but there will be existing legislation suitable for a prosecution if it is considered in the public interest to do so. There are, apparently, laws against causing injury or death without using a vehicle already on the statute books.

So, on the basis of no evidence, a bunch of selectively found anecdotes, and a lot of unnecessary fear, there is a growing call to make people's lives even more difficult than society already makes them.