Is Peter Hitchens a hypocrite?

Peter Hitchens is part of a tendency in right-wing Conservatism, including the satirist Peter Simple , which has criticised some of the problems of mass car use, not least the “road safety” engineering of the modern car and its environment. I recommend that you read his latest piece on the subject. In such a piece you get more human insight into car and road safety culture than in so many professional articles. But there are -as always – problems. In fact, we should wonder: Is Peter Hitchens not something of a hypocrite on this subject? 

Let’s take a look at the article first. Some good points from Hitchens:

  1. A realisation of the difference in the danger to others between errant cycling on the one hand, and errant driving on the other – something largely denied by official “road safety” discourse.
  2. A correct awareness of the effects of “safety improvements” to car engineering on the behaviour of motorists (“I think this has encouraged a subconscious carelessness which is really, really important where there are pedestrians or cyclists within range”).
  3. An honest and welcome  – unusually from a motorist – willingness to accept his own fallibility and potential danger to others when driving.
  4. An understanding that the road environment is now not necessarily safer – particularly for people outside cars – just because the aggregate casualties per head of the population are lower.

One would like to think that Hitchens has been informed by Death on the Streets: cars and the mythology of road safety”, a copy of which he received some years ago.

We may take issue with his central theme of assault – although that is how many victims of danger on the road feel. And if motorists do demand rights as individuals they need to accept responsibilities as individuals.

I would suggest a more appropriate analogy would be with a failure of appropriate health and safety procedures: in a highly risk-averse culture the one area where there is little enforced requirement to not endanger others is on the road. Hitchens is absolutely correct to point out the difference between what is apparently acceptable to motorists compared to what is acceptable to ordinary citizens who are not driving.

 Of course, the cry of “I hate cars” doesn’t take us very far: we could do with suggestions as to how to get us away from where we are.

But that may be carping at a welcome refusal to countenance  – at least some of – the depredations of car culture without protest.  There’s nothing wrong with a primal scream at the problem. All in all, this article is not at all bad for any publication, and remarkably good for the Daily Mail.

Which brings us to the charge of hypocrisy.

Hitchens is known as a man of principle. In particular, his career has been marked by his departure, in December 2000, from the Daily Express in response to the title’s acquisition by Richard Desmond. Hitchens felt that his own moral and religious conservatism was incompatible with Desmond’s ownership and publication of sex magazines and TV outlets.

He has since been a columnist on the Daily Mail. For those not familiar with this publication, it epitomises all that is worst about modern car culture. Motorists are continually presented as victims of the non-existent  “war on the motorist” . Motorists are seen as victims of unnecessary control by the law, for example in its relentless criticism of speed cameras. Cyclists are seen as the danger to pedestrians.

It is a world where the oppressor sees himself as oppressed and the subsidised as taxed. It is a world of self-pitying victim wannabes. It is a world where reality is turned upside down.

Now, obviously we can’t expect every journalist to be held responsible for the views of the publication they happen to write for. But at some level – and Hitchens, as we have seen, is a man who cares deeply about fulfilling personal responsibility – this issue does come up. And for a man who publicly left his paper because of the activities of its proprietor, all the more so.

At the very least Hitchens could explicitly criticise his paper’s coverage of motoring matters. He could demand that there are regular counterblasts to anti-cycling prejudice and motorist irresponsibility. We can supply the columnists.

Over to you, Mr. Hitchens.