People can be such idiots

Given that we are the most intelligent species on the planet, human beings all too frequently demonstrate the ability to do the stupidest things, which suggest that our survival instincts have been irrevocably dulled by too much civilised living.

Of course, there are the Darwin Awards, which annually celebrate the achievements of the spectacularly silly in removing themselves from the gene pool.

But over the course of the last few days, a number of stories – all of them resulting in fatalities – have caught my eye which range from the foolhardy to the murderous.

Don’t cramp(on) my style

I can see the attraction of scaling the UK’s peaks in the midst of the worst winter for nearly 20 years: the views must be spectacular, and the sense of achievement incredibly uplifting.

However …

Since the beginning of last week, five walkers have been killed on Snowdon and in the Lake District in four separate incidents. In at least one of these cases, the unfortunate victim was thought to have set out without an ice axe or crampons, which strikes me as a tad … Darwinian.

Sure, even the most experienced and fully equipped of walkers can be caught out by a sudden change in conditions or just plain misfortune. But to take to the mountains without the most basic of cold weather gear, well, there really is no excuse for that.

Very sad. But, you would think, all too preventable.

Defence? What defence?

Jorge Nogueira da Silva has denied six counts of death by dangerous driving. Based on the evidence which has already been reported, it is hard to see how he has any credible defence.

You will probably remember the story. Da Silva killed David and Michelle Statham and their four children – the oldest, 13; the youngest, just 10 weeks – when his 40-tonne lorry hit their stationary vehicle in a crash on the M6 last October.

The Stathams’ car had been at the back of a queue caused by an earlier accident on the motorway. It’s alleged that da Silva was distracted because he was using a laptop – found by police in the lorry’s cab by the driver’s seat with its screen turned towards the driver – to look for an alternative route to circumvent the tailback.

The prosecutor has said, “If he had looked he would have seen the queuing traffic for himself because the road was straight for over a mile before the queue started. He had plenty of time to see the queue because the trucks in front had been there for between one and two minutes before he arrived. For over a mile before the point of impact the defendant was not paying proper attention to the road – it was gross inattention.”

The case continues.

Now, dying on a snow-bound mountain is foolhardy, but places only the individuals involved at risk. This is an entirely different kettle of fish.

Burn them at the stake

At the time of writing, the bush fires in the Australian state of Victoria had claimed 181 lives, injured at least 500, and destroyed over 1,000 homes, wiping out a number of small rural towns.

That’s bad enough. But police are treating a number of the fire sites as potential crime scenes, and have vowed to try any suspected arsonists for murder.

Bush fires are hard to fully comprehend. They bear about as much resemblance to what we traditionally think of as a fire as a Formula 1 machine does to a toy car. Extreme drought and heatwave conditions, as have been experienced in the state in recent weeks, create tinder-dry conditions. So when a fire does start it can spread at astonishing speed – potentially faster than humans can run – as feather-light burning ashes are scattered great distances, starting fresh blazes which multiply exponentially. Add in unpredictable, swirling winds, and firefighters’ attempts to create containment lines – typically they bulldoze or ‘back-burn’ swathes of bush to remove all combustible material from the path of the fire – have been rendered ineffective as the fires have changed direction.

They are, however, a natural phenomenon: bush fires are actually just part of nature’s cycle of renewal. What is not natural, however, is the strange copycat phenomenon of arsonists starting their own fires under the guise of a bush fire. The Australian Institute of Criminology estimates that as many as half of the nation’s annual 20-30,000 bush fires are the result of arson.

What possesses someone to do this is beyond the comprehension of most rational people; it’s certainly beyond mine. Dying on a snowy mountain is foolhardy; using a laptop (allegedly) at the wheel is criminally negligent. Bush fire arson is a whole different ball game.

Being convicted for murder seems like a comparatively light punishment for people like this. In olden times, they used to burn witches at the stake. Somehow, this would be altogether more fitting for the bush fire arsonists.