Volkswagen: the human cost

Emissions standards are designed to save lives. When the world’s largest car maker cheats those standards, people are likely to have died as a result. Why then, does the media choose to cover this as mainly as a “consumer rights” issue, rather than a public health one?

NO2 really is dangerous. The government estimates it kills 23,500 people in the UK every year through heart and lung diseases. There are many sources of NO2, including power stations, but the one that matters most to human health is transport, because it happens in towns and cities where most people live.

DEFRA says that cars account for 14% of all NOx emissions, while the GLA estimates that cars contribute about 16% of NO2 in London. If that’s typical, then cars could be responsible for something like 3,750 deaths a year in the UK through NO2, double the number killed in road accidents.

The 1.2 million “defeat device” Volkswagens in the UK are about 4% of all the cars on the road, and about 12% of all diesel cars (petrol cars emit much less NO2). We don’t yet know for sure how bad the problem is although US reports describe the breaches as “up to 40 times the limit”, while on-road tests in the UK suggest new diesels are on average five times the limit.

There are many uncertainties here, and proper expert analysis is needed. This is just an attempt to to get a handle on the potential scale of the problem. But based on the numbers above it seems quite plausible that Volkswagen’s defeat devices may turn out to have killed dozens, possibly even hundreds of people a year in the UK alone. And these defeat devices have been installed since 2009.

In other circumstances a deliberate industrial deception that poisoned and killed so many people would surely be the national headline. Instead, perhaps because of our resigned acceptance of motoring’s already vast death-toll, together with the dispersed and hard-to-spot nature of the victims, we collectively shrug our shoulders.

So when the BBC published a list of “The unanswered questions” about the VW scandal, it started with “Will drivers get any compensation?” and “What will the long-term effect be on VW’s prices?” when what journalists should be asking on our behalf is “How many people died?”.

Update 15/07/16 – sorry to go on, but this is still making me angry… today the BBC are yet again reporting this as exclusively a consumer rights issue: “VW failure to compensate UK owners deeply unfair“.


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