A Blueprint for Effective Road Transport and Road Safety Policies

Nowadays Road Transport — & inextricably linked with it, Road Safety, are high profile political issues.The reasons are straightforward: no political party realistically seeking electability to government can afford to neglect Health, Education & Social Security spending. To a very large extent these have become non-differentiators between the main UK political parties.
The next most important issue is undoubtedly transport. The functioning and the very economic health of our entire society is dependent on the fastest and most efficient movement of people, goods and services consistent with culturally acceptable levels of safety. Road Transport is the means by which the vast majority of the movements of the country's people, goods and services are effected. It will remain the pre-eminent means for the foreseeable future — whatever the objectives of certain fringe elements in our society.
Despite what some transport "experts" and commentators would have you believe, congestion did not arrive with the birth of the motor vehicle. Nor did the concomitant, some would argue unnecessary, additional emissions that congestion generates. These additional, less desirable adjuncts to any transport system have been with us since Man first tamed and saddled wild animals and used them to transport goods into centres of population. The health risks associated with transport emissions were a considerably greater hazard to human health in the past than they are today; when, for example, 40 tonnes of horse dung had to be shovelled from the streets of London each day throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
We are bombarded — by various quasi-respectable environmental groups who ought to know better — with scientifically groundless scare-stories attributing highly deleterious impacts to motor vehicle use. Politicians — ever alive to new tax-raising opportunities — have latched onto, and elevated the status of, these unsound allegations to "popular" anti-car folklore.
Just because a Lie is much-repeated — and many gullible or ill-informed people are taken in by it — that does not make it a Truth. It pays to remember that there was a time a when the majority view was that the Earth was flat and detractors from this view were pilloried (or worse) as heretics. That still didn't make the sceptics wrong. Informed scepticism is, after all, a much more practical mindset than gullibility or blind ignorance.
Proposals, currently already in the pipeline, would introduce a rĂ©gime of network-wide road use charging. This when British road users contribute in excess of £45Bn a year to the Exchequer; only around £2Bn of which finds it way back into maintaining and extending our arterial road network. This network has been chronically investment-starved over decades — leading to the very, spiralling congestion levels for which the nation's road users are illogically blamed!!!
A further anti-mobility measure, thinly dressed up in road safety clothing, is the proposed application of GPS (satellite-moderated) external speed control of the nation's entire vehicle pool. This despite the scheme's own proponents having carried out simulations which have shown this technology to be significantly inferior to the performance of unregulated road users under adverse, e.g., foggy, conditions!
This type of approach has already been tried — and abandoned — in the aviation industry. It was found that planes that fly themselves with minimal human input so dissociated their pilots from the activity of flying that they were unable to function in an emergency situation: they had become passengers in their own plane. If this happened with highly-trained civil aviation professionals, imagine how much more reliance and blind faith the average car-driver is going to place in the technology — rather than his or her own actions — to get them out of trouble! This is ivory-tower "Speed Kills" dogma-driven road safety at its lamentable worst. And then there is the Pandora's Box that the the civil liberties implications of these proposals represent — which I will not even venture to open up.
Every human activity carries with it an unavoidable element of risk There are currently some 30 million vehicles on the UK's roads; each averaging around four journeys per day, clocking up around 4.38 Billion vehicle movements a year. Such a large number of vehicle journeys brings with it an inevitable toll in deaths and injuries: currently there are some 3,400 deaths and 37,000 serious injuries on our roads every year. The figure for deaths has been static for some years, and the underlying trend of previously reducing serious injuries is now also tending towards a plateau.
The Government/ Home Office response to this regrettable situation has been to rely increasingly heavily on a "one-trick donkey" road safety strategy, with speed reduction cast in the guise of the unfortunate beast of burden.
This is perhaps in part because certain single issue lobby groups and some senior public officials would have us believe that all road accidents are the result of reckless "speeding" by uncaring drivers & PTW riders. While in reality nothing could be further from the truth, the regrettable focus by these groups on anti-driver arguments which are strong on emotion, but weak on rationality, has lead to the adoption of the bewildering official position that speed "causes" accidents. This is akin to saying that gravity "causes" plane crashes.
Obviously, speed contributes to road accidents: collisions between stationary objects are after all remarkably rare; but speed itself — and in particular speed in excess of posted limits (let's call it "illegal speed") — is the cause of only a tiny proportion of road accidents, perhaps 5% at the very most. A significantly larger proportion of road accidents is caused by road users whose speed is within the posted limit, but inappropriate for the prevailing conditions ("inappropriate speed").
Accidents to which inappropriate speed is a major contributor are not amenable to treatment by speed cameras. Only enhanced levels of road user education can address this issue.
When one takes the trouble to objectively analyse a significant range of the available road accident causation statistics, one finds that the overwhelming majority of road accidents are precipitated by observation, hazard perception and hazard response failures on the part of road users; with by no means all of them being on the part of vehicle users. All of these are also road user education issues — which currently remain largely unaddressed.
The Home Office/ DfT response to a deteriorating trend in changes in both deaths and serious injuries (that has now been with us for approaching 10 years) has been akin to that of the cornered doctor at the end of his tether instinctively increasing the dose of the drug to which his patient has failed to respond — while recognising deep-down that this is an inappropriate course of action.
In essence The Home Office & DfT have been complicit in presiding over a progressive wholesale lowering of speed limits and tolerances and a substantially cranking-up the levels of speed limit enforcement with fixed and mobile speed cameras. Very much a: "We're in a hole, let's get a JCB to dig ourselves out" approach. This has substantially swollen Government coffers, but delivered no significant road safety payoff for the reasons that will be evident from the preceding paragraphs.
In terms of road safety, what is actually required is a balanced policy based on the so-called Three E's: Engineering, Education and Enforcement.
We really need a programme of targeted road engineering to eradicate genuine accident blackspots, coupled with a concerted road user education campaign aimed at improving driving and riding standards; and at improving the capabilities of vulnerable road users — contemporaneously impressing on them their road safety responsibilities in the same way that these are already being emphasised to drivers and PTW riders.
A further desirable strand would be a return to the deployment of highly trained Police road safety patrols whose objective would be to focus on eradicating really dangerous road user behaviour through targeted enforcement. This would be both preferable and more effective than the current, fashionable (and highly lucrative) flirtation with the scattergun prosecution of substantial numbers of purely technical "illegal speed" offences — which in the overwhelming majority of cases have no genuine road safety ramifications.
Allied with this, a root-and-branch review is required of urban and non-urban speed limits — and the policies and authority required for setting them. Many non-urban speed limits need raising, while there are compelling arguments in favour of time-regulated reduced limits, e.g., around schools during opening and closing hours only.
This would have wide public support and would prevent the abuse of blanket limits for the entrapment of road users during periods when the time-regulated low limit is unrealistic; e.g., preventing the enforcing of a 20mph limit outside a closed school at 2am on Sunday morning in the Summer holiday period.
There is also a fourth E: eradication. The revenue-raising Speed Camera Partnerships must be dissolved and eradicated, the vast majority of revenue-raising speed camera sites should — as the Opposition is currently proposing — be thoroughly audited for validity.
A simple, commonsense question should be asked at the very outset: "Are the accidents at this particular blackspot location (or indeed anywhere else) caused specifically by road users exceeding the posted speed limit?" If not, then there is no justification for siting a speed camera at that location and it must be removed altogether.
This would signal a return to commonsense road safety policies as outlined above and should be wholeheartedly embraced and accepted by all local authorities and Police force areas.
Any knee-jerk policy rooted in irrational, emotive arguments is likely to be poorly thought-out, to lead to bad law-making and ultimately to the ill-advised enforcement of rules that have very low public acceptance and hence a low level of public support. This has very much been the case with both the current Government's Road Transport and Road Safety policies.
The whole spectrum of views — however fringe they may appear — on these issues should be rationally & objectively considered — without threats or intimidation being directed at any of the parties involved from whatever source and without any attempts from officialdom at suppression of information or evidence. Only in this way can a balanced and rational set of policies be evolved that will gain the support and acceptance of the travelling public.
An abridged version of this article appeared in House Magazine (distributed in the Houses of Parliament) in January 2004.