By Kenneth Roy
A year or so ago, two young women (19 years old) returning by car from a holiday in Northern Ireland were killed a mile from where I live. They were on a slip road to the dual carriageway, on their way home to Greenock, when they were hit head-on by a car travelling in the wrong direction.
The driver of the second car turned out to be a man in his early 80s. He too was killed.
It was the worst road acccident in this area for a long time, but very little was broadcast or written about it. I don’t recall photographs of any of the victims appearing in the newspapers, and within a few days it was as if this horrific collision, claiming the lives of two innocents, had never happened. The road was quickly re-opened and, in the absence of floral tributes, we were spared the melancholy sight of flowers withering at the roadside. But when I pass that spot, as I often do, I cannot help thinking of the arbitrariness of sudden death on the roads and especially of the loss of young life.
Last weekend, as we all know, there was a road accident on the M5 in which seven people were killed and many more injured. It would be foolish to deny that this was a much more serious incident. Of course it was. All the same, it is slightly perplexing that an accident in Ayrshire claiming three lives should be more or less ignored, while an accident in Somerset claiming seven should receive wall-to-wall media coverage for several days. It relegated and, at one point, almost swamped news that ought to be of greater concern to most people – the looming prospect of economic collapse in Europe.
There are three factors about the M5 accident which may help to explain the excessive attention it received (and goes on receiving).
The first is the location. Unlike an obscure slip road in Ayrshire, the M5 in Somerset is a route well known to the editorial functionaries who control the media agenda; for many of them it is the road of pleasure to the west, a road on which they themselves have travelled to go on holiday. Human familiarity is one of the most powerful influences on what is considered news. That is why the move of several departments of the BBC to Salford is to be welcomed; we can expect to hear more about parts of England until now considered pretty dull. Suddenly, Manchester will be riveting.
The language of the M5 reporting was also revealing. The reporters constantly referred to it as a ‘disaster’ and this word was picked up and casually recycled.
The second factor is the ability of new technology, although it is usually in amateur hands, to give a sense of immediacy and drama to events on our doorstep. As recently as 10 years ago, it is doubtful that anyone at the accident scene would have had the hardware to film it as it happened. In an increasingly visual world, the availability of footage made it bigger news than it would have been otherwise. In Ayrshire the young women died unobserved, in darkness, on a quiet country road.
To mention the third factor runs the risk of sounding crass. But what the hell. The explosive nature of the accident made good television; that is why the burning vehicles on the motorway became the motif of the weekend, just as, on a much grander scale, the spectacle of the twin towers was so compelling – until it was collectively decided that the repetition of the more distressing images might be damaging to the fragile mental health of western society. So then we weren’t shown them at all.
There are two additional factors – we are heavy on factors this morning – about the M5 incident. It raises an awkward question over the desirability of increasing the speed limit; and it exposes the dangers of fireworks displays near motorways. But was there not also a more general question about the fatalities in Ayrshire? Two young women died needlessly because a careless old man was driving in the wrong direction. Why was this character on the road at all? There is a strong case for withdrawing the driving licence from people over the age of 80 and offering them counselling on the various alternatives to motoring – encouraging them to read books of philosophy or amuse themselves by watching minor erotica on Saturday evening television (I believe it’s called Strictly Come Dancing). Both pastimes would be preferable to killing young women.
The language of the M5 reporting was also revealing. The reporters constantly referred to it as a ‘disaster’ and this word was picked up and casually recycled by the usual procession of sermonising vicars and appropriately concerned politicians in hard hats. One newspaper even ran a splash headline across its front page which read: ‘It was just like Afghanistan’.
It was not like Afghanistan. To say it was like Afghanistan is insulting to the many victims of war in that country. Nor was it a disaster. It was far from being a disaster. It was a road accident in which, tragically for their loved ones, seven people died.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review