Thu, Apr 10, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Why is Britain such a dangerous place for walkers?

Tramping through the British countryside is a joy, but enter the towns and cities, and pedestrians find themselves in a hostile environment resulting from the government always giving motorists the right of way

By Nick Cohen  /  The Observer, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

Standing on the Maiden Moor ridge above Derwentwater lake in northwest England’s Lake District in Cumbria County on March 30, I was at once depressed and exhilarated. Depressed because I had overestimated my strength and stamina — a common fault among men of a certain age — by thinking that I could whip round the six magnificent peaks that surround Newlands Valley and be at the jetty at the foot of Catbells to catch the last boat to the town of Keswic at 4:40pm.

However, its departure time came and went and I was still 4.8km away and 500m above the shoreline.

From my viewpoint, I could just glimpse a speck in the distance floating across the lake without me. Nevertheless, my despair did not last. The sun was shining — in the Lake District, in March.

The clocks had moved forward that morning and I had light until 8pm. I could keep walking without anyone or anything stopping me.

I trudged down the long ridge and followed the path to Keswick through woods and fields. The change in color and mood as mountain turned to valley, and the glimpses of the first buds on trees, were indeed exhilarating, until I reached Keswick and re-entered the Britain where the interests of walkers come last.

The path stopped just before a T-junction where the main route out of town meets a side road. One branch of the T leads to Keswick’s bus station.

People famously run for buses, but there was no pedestrian crossing to take them across the road. Even in a national park that sells itself as a place where walkers can escape our odious streets, the authorities had not taken basic precautions.

The next evening, I picked up the Carlisle News and Star and found that while walkers around Keswick had been spared, four people had died on Cumbria’s roads that day.

The crashes made the local press, but the nationals did not bother with them. Death comes so often on the roads, its visits are not worth covering — particularly when the dead were on foot.

As I was climbing fells and missing boats, the London assembly was issuing a doubtless vain appeal to stop the killing of walkers. More pedestrians are killed or seriously injured on London’s streets than any other type of road user, its members said.

They were “astonished” to find that one-quarter of the deaths occurred on pedestrian crossings, which are meant to be places of safety.

Others were inflicted by bus drivers, who, despite being privatized, are meant to be publicly accountable, and by the drivers of heavy goods vehicles, who are also meant to meet minimum safety standards.

Few in authority cared. Not one of the London Metropolitan Police’s 32 boroughs listed the enforcement of traffic law as a priority. Deaths on the road are to today’s criminal justice system what domestic violence was in the past: as natural and inevitable as the weather.

What applies in London applies nationally. You would never guess it from British society’s obsession with crime, but there are three times as many road deaths each year as there are homicides.

As campaign group Road Peace says, the budgets for collision investigations are tiny when set against the resources the police throw at murders.

If I write with feeling, it is because I have become a regular walker for the first time since I was a teenager. Eighteen months ago, I discovered that 111.7kg could not be defined as a “cuddly weight,” as I had imagined, but according to something called the body mass index was better described as “clinically obese.”

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