By Alison Hill

I’M STARTING to see the treatment of cyclists and pedestrians like that of non-smokers in years gone by. Everything was designed for smokers, everyone was forced to inhale their fumes because it was their “right” to smoke. Then we started to see things differently. We changed.

This tweet from @suzy_dublin got me thinking about the parallels between smoking and car use.

To remind readers about how the public attitude has changed about smoking, look back over the last 60 years. A study by Sir Richard Doll published in 1954 showed beyond reasonable doubt that smoking causes lung cancer. The harm done by smoking has been confirmed time and again and its horrifying impact on disease, disability and death is unquestioned.

Nicotine is one of the most addictive chemicals around and it is difficult to give up the habit. It has taken 60 years of action to reduce smoking rates (from more than 50 per cent to 16 per cent now), and for smoking to be seen as antisocial.

Efforts by government has been across many fronts. These include fiscal measures (eg raising taxes on tobacco products), cessation of all advertising, legislation for smoke-free public places so those of us who don’t smoke do not inhale second-hand smoke, legislation to put health warnings on plain packs, and smoking cessation programmes provided free by the NHS. And the tobacco industry has fought back fiercely.

So back to that tweet. What are the parallels with car ownership?

You could say car ownership is an addiction. While there are all sorts of benefits to owning a car, it is a habit that is very difficult to break as it is so alluring, with door-to-door journeys at the time of your choice, sitting in the safety of a metal box, lots of freedom to travel wherever and whenever. Car ownership is a ‘right’ like smoking was a ‘right’.

But car use also comes with huge health risks. Cars are killing machines for their occupants who are at risk of obesity and many other health issues. Cars contribute to air pollution. Road injuries involving cars create much human tragedy.

Active travel (cycling and walking) on the other hand is associated with reduction in ill health and prolongation of life, and believe it or not, little injury. This is all supported by compelling research evidence.

The health parallel to stopping smoking is getting out of cars and walking or cycling instead. And, like smoking, this requires action on many fronts. Fiscal measures might include increased fuel taxes, workplace parking levies, and subsidies on public transport. Legislation might include compulsory cycle training in the national curriculum, and taking road space away from cars. What about advertising? Wouldn’t it be good if it was banned so that we are no longer subjected to endless adverts at the cinema? And of course, the car industry plays dirty like the tobacco industry.

Public attitude about car use is changing, but, unlike the smoking epidemic, I hope it won’t take 60 years!