Seven killed in ‘horrific’ motorway crash

Britain has suffered its worst road accident in 20 years, after a huge multi-car pile-up on the M5. The crash will reopen a heated debate on road safety, and the price of a human life.

Driver Tom Raeburn was approaching a particularly dense patch of fog on the M5 motorway when he noticed the brake lights on the cars in front suddenly and simultaneously turning on. Then, out of the murk, came the sound of metal smashing into metal, and the glare of flames.

Tom Hamill was even closer to the crash, and escaped only by swerving his car onto the motorway’s central reservation. Another vehicle hurtled past him and he heard the thud as it ploughed into an overturned lorry. A desperate mother emerged from the smoke crying out for someone to take her baby so she could go back and rescue her husband. Chunks of debris flew overhead as Hamill carried the child to safety.

By the time rescue workers arrived, the scene was one of utter devastation, the crackle of flames rising from the great blaze of burning vehicles was punctuated by the boom and crack of explosions from tyres and petrol tanks. When the flames eventually subsided, the wrecks of no fewer than 34 cars, trucks and lorries lay crumpled and blacked across the highway. Some had been burned to ashes – even the metal of the car’s bodywork consumed in the intense heat.

On Saturday, after nearly 24 hours sifting through the debris, police confirmed that seven people had been killed at the scene. More than 50 people were injured, 17 of them seriously.

An investigation will soon be underway to establish what caused Britain’s worst road accident in two decades. It is suspected that clouds of smoke from a nearby fireworks display may be to blame. Relevant safety rules are likely to be thoroughly reviewed.

But, as the road safety charity Brake pointed out, this crash is just an unusually dramatic example of something that happens all the time. Around five people, said a spokesman, are killed on roads in Britain every single day.

Paying the price

Those five deaths a day don’t often make the headlines. Why not, campaigners ask? If anything else was killing 2,000 people in Britain – and more than one million worldwide – each year, there would be an outcry. One in fifty people will be killed on roads – making cars a bigger killer than war and drugs put together. Taking action to end this scourge might be difficult. It might cost millions of pounds, or slow down the world’s economy, but surely nothing is more important than saving innocent lives?

Every individual death is a tragedy, comes the reply, but in general, a certain number of deaths each year is a price we have to pay for living in a free society. A world in which all risks were banned would be not just boring and authoritarian but also terribly impractical, with all human activity smothered under a suffocating blanket of health and safety regulation.

You Decide

  1. What cost, in effort or money, should societies be willing to pay to save one human life?
  2. Why are many people more frightened of terrorists, who have killed 56 people in Britain over the last decade, than they are of cars, which have killed around 30,000?


  1. Design a good eye-catching poster for a road safety campaign.
  2. A British government minister recently proposed raising the motorway speed limit from 70 to 80 miles per hour. Do some further research and then write a short article arguing either for or against the proposal.

Some People Say...

“A life without risk is not worth living.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does Britain have a particularly bad road safety record?
No. In fact, it's the fifth safest country in the world in terms of road accidents.
Which countries are the worst?
Busy, fast-developing countries with densely populated cities but under-developed road safety laws. The road accident death rate in India is four times as bad as Britain, and it's five times as bad in Mexico.
What can be done to avoid accidents?
Lower speed limits help. So does cracking down on drink driving and making sure truckers don't drive too long hours (drivers asleep at the wheel are a major cause of accidents).

Word Watch

Depending on your definition, the first ever motorway was probably the Long Island Motor Parkway, opened in 1908. The idea didn't really take off until Germany built its network of 'autobahns' in the 1920s and 30s. In Britain, the first motorways arrived in the 1950s.
A whip or a lash, used metaphorically in this case to indicate something that causes a huge amount of grief and pain in societies all over the world.
Slow down the world's economy
Speed and ease of transport is an important source of economic growth. The more time people have to spend driving, the less time they spend in productive activity. Slowing down drivers slows down economic growth too.

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