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Cops and robbers

21st May 1976, Page 48
21st May 1976
Page 48
Page 48, 21st May 1976 — Cops and robbers
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

FAMILIAR to most people concerned with traffic regulations and road improvements is the exchange of correspondence which begins with a complaint about a dangerous junction or stretch of road. The reply that there have so far been no accidents at this particular spot is countered by an accusation usually put as a question—Does somebody have to be killed before anything is done?

On this relatively simple issue it is easy to see both sides and to agree with each of them. The suspension of judgment is not much help towards a resolution of the argument which, it will be noted, is given greater apparent urgency by the assumption that the hypothetical accident would be fatal.

Much the same process is at work in the more complicated controversies to which the traffic situation lends itself. Indeed, a favourite subject for magazine articles is the description of what might happen if a number of unfavourable factors coincided in a single road accident.

Actual cases, particularly when one of the factors is fog on a motorway, are sufficient in themselves to arouse apprehension and horror. Where the event is imaginary, the writer feels the need to heighten the effect even more if he is to attract attention.

The carriage of dangerous liquids is an obvious subject for this kind of treatment. An impression of mystery and of fear can be produced at the outset by the description of an unidentified and inadequately marked tanker carrying its lethal load at speed through the busy centre of a town.

After the inevitable collision, the liquid spills on to the road. The situation becomes worse, almost unmanageable, if another vehicle involved is carrying a different chemical, perhaps in carboys or unmarked containers. Such a series of events is possible and a legitimate subject for concern. More care might be taken in some cases to put it in the proper context.

Local authorities, including the fire fighting and police services, as well as the chemical manufacturers and carriers, are all aware of the possibility. They have plans to deal with it, and in many cases will have had exercises to see how the plans work. Their ideas on the subject include suitable publicity, and they normally do what they can to help journalists present an accurate picture.

The temptation is to improve the tale in the telling by nominating heroes and villains, as in the traditional Western. The police and the fire brigade, falling easily into the part of the sheriff, are ranged against the vehicle operator or driver, who then naturally has to be called a "cowboy." The chemical manufacturers occupy a somewhat ambiguous position, but on the whole are considered to be on the side of the angels.

Too facile

Such a distribution of roles is too facile. It gets in the way of a proper understanding of what is involved. Because the horrific details have made the author's point, he hurries toward the end like the indifferent detectivestory writer who leaves the careful reader conscious of too many loose threads.

From the beginning it ought to be firmly established that the dangerous load is one of the myriad elements in the fabric of civilisation. If the writer gets down to naming the load, at least he should go on to explain its purpose.

The road journey could not then be seen as an example of motiveless malignancy. Within the process, the manufacturer, the vehicle operator and driver, and the public services all have a similar share. They are all, in their different ways, servants of the community engaged on a common task.

It is pointless, or at best misleading, to concentrate the blame on the operator. Even if he behaves in the much-abused " cowboy" manner, it can still be argued that the guilt really lies with the person or organisation that employs him when more satisfactory services are available.


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