Better to die? Really?

I can’t imagine many Observer readers will have been persuaded by the Rev John Collins’ apparent belief that it is better to be killed outright in a traffic accident than to live with injuries, however ‘serious, painful and long-lasting’ those injuries may be.

More worrying is his lending credence to the theory that 20mph zones are somehow more dangerous than 30mph ones. Because that theory appears to be gaining a bit of traction, after having been kicked off by The Sun and parroted by others.

Fortunately Mr Collins can stop worrying because the theory has been pretty well put to bed by More or Less, a programme on BBC Radio 4 dedicated to examining statistics in the news.

Mr Collins says he has heard that in 20mph zones ‘casualty figures are actually higher’, and in a headline-grabbing sort of way he is right – at least in a limited comparison of the years 2010 and 2011, when there was indeed a 17 per cent increase nationally in deaths in 20mph zones.

So far, so troubling.

But More or Less was at pains to point out that this actually represents one extra death, from six deaths to seven, and that, in the words of the presenter: ‘It’s just nonsense to suggest a jump from six deaths to seven deaths is actually going to tell us anything’ because ‘if there are more 20mph roads (in 2011 as compared with 2010), it would hardly be a surprise – or a problem – to find that a higher proportion of accidents started happening on those roads’.

Where I would agree entirely with Mr Collins is that those voting on the issue of 20mph zones should think carefully.

Anyone truly interested in looking beyond alarmist headlines could do worse than tune in to the More or Less report, where they can also listen to Dr Angela Raffle, consultant in public health in Bristol, stating two pilot schemes in Bristol have seen average speeds drop, walking and cycling go up, support among local residents increase, and no change in reliability and journey times for buses.

She also states that in Bristol the casualty figures are as yet too small to be statistically significant, but that a study of 20mph schemes in London, published in the BMJ no less, looked at the statistics and ‘found a reduction in severity of casualties’.

For those depressed by whatever they may have thought they have heard about 20mph schemes, the More or Less report should make refreshing listening.

It is still available on BBC iPlayer and starts about 14 minutes in to the last episode of the series (which is listed under the heading of the first item The great playing field sell off?).

Dr JJ Lacey

St Agnes Place, Chichester