by Malcolm Heymer
 
This is a series of articles based on the book Road Accidents: Prevent or Punish? by J.J.Leeming.
The articles were originally published during 2003 and 2004 in the ABD's journal On The Road.
 
This document has around 18,000 words. If you prefer to read it off-line you can download it as a free eBook for Pocket PC [105k].


 
Published in 1969, Road Accidents: Prevent or Punish? is one of the most important books ever written about road safety, and should be compulsory reading for everyone involved in the formulation of road safety policy. Although it was written nearly thirty-five years ago, the attitudes and prejudices J.J.Leeming describes are not only still with us, they have become even more entrenched.
 
John Leeming was County Surveyor of Dorset and was a firm believer that road accidents could be reduced by a scientific and dispassionate analysis of their causes. He was strongly opposed to the view that accidents are caused by the wilful misdeeds of drivers, who must therefore be punished for their 'crimes'. Indeed, he pointed out that this blame culture leads to drivers being reluctant to talk openly about their actions to accident investigators for fear of prosecution, with the result that the true contributory factors may never be established. Further accidents will continue to occur, therefore, which might otherwise have been prevented — hence the title of his book. His frustration is summed up in the dedication to his work:
'This book is dedicated to the countless thousands who have died on the roads of the world as a result of the prejudices of a minority, as some reparation and in the faint hope that it may induce some government, somewhere, to begin trying to stop accidents.'

 

Top1. Leeming's background
How he became interested in studying the causes of road accidents, and why he came to believe that the traditional approach — to blame all accidents on the driver — was wrong.


John Leeming began his career in Oxfordshire in the 1930s, where he worked under Lt-Col G T Bennett, the County Surveyor. Lt-Col Bennett was the first person to study road accidents on site and to realise that the established view — even then — about drivers' culpability was not based on the facts. Expressing such a view in public was met with a similar level of vilification as it is today! The only people who took any notice were other practitioners of the new discipline of traffic engineering, of which Bennett was a founder.
 
Leeming's interest in the study of accident causes arose from his work with Bennett, and he continued and extended that work when he took up the position of County Surveyor of Dorset. He did not just study accidents in that county, but obtained information from colleagues in other parts of the country. He was thus able to draw statistically valid conclusions about the effect on accident rates of various 'remedial' measures, both engineering and legal. As he says in the introduction to his book:
'Strange and incredible as this may seem, I have spent forty years of my life increasing the speed of traffic to reduce accidents, with some success. The book will, therefore, run counter to many strongly held prejudices, and will come to many as a severe shock.'
Even after working with Bennett for so long, Leeming confesses that he was not entirely immune to the fault of jumping to conclusions about driver blame, when he first moved to Dorset in 1946. He assumed that accidents involving skidding were due to bad driving, and dismissed claims by drivers about the road surface as just excuses. However, following a history of complaints about a series of bends on a particular road, where there was also a bad accident record, he examined the road surface. He discovered that the bitumen had risen to the top, covering the aggregate, so that the surface could become slippery when wet. Although he was not convinced that this was the cause of the accidents, he had the surplus material planed off — and the accidents stopped. Even then, as he puts it, it did not 'make the penny drop', but assumed it to be an isolated case.
 
It took another incident to convince him. Complaints were received about skidding on new asphalt surfaces laid with machines that had been introduced shortly before. Although the material itself wasn't new, the method of laying was. At first, Leeming assumed that the skids were due to bad driving, but they became too frequent for this to be the case. He continues the story:
'In the early days of my study of this matter I discussed it with a senior member of the police. He dismissed it all with the remark "good drivers don't skid", and put it down to bad driving. Later on I received a phone call from another policeman, who said I must do something about the surface at -, one of their cars had skidded and was a write-off. I could not resist the murmur that good drivers don't skid, and it was not well received. Even the police are human; he had not heard what his colleague had said. It was the same material.'
Further examination of the road surface showed, again, that the bitumen had risen to the top. This was found to be due to a vibration bar fitted to the new machines. A reduction in the bitumen content of the mix cured the problem. This got Leeming thinking and he found that colleagues in other counties had experienced similar problems. So he began experimenting with surface dressing of sharp bends with poor accident records, with dramatic results. His conversion was complete.
 
Since then, Leeming has been a firm believer in not jumping to conclusions about the causes of accidents — or the value of accepted 'solutions' — without a rigorous study of all the facts. In his chapter on statistical methods, he quotes G K Chesterton: "A man of science isn't trying to prove anything. He's trying to find out what will prove itself." Leeming was always meticulous about including all results and data available to him on any issue he was investigating, even if some of the data pointed in a different direction from the rest. As we know only too well today, many reports on road safety (and other) issues have started with an assumed conclusion, and the data has been selected to fit that conclusion!
 
Leeming was scathing about 'propagandists' who misuse statistics by, for example, comparing different things and hoping people do not notice that they are being duped. He quotes a couple of examples, one of which is the frequent claim that railways are much safer than roads. At the time he was writing, there were between seven and eight thousand road deaths every year (we have certainly come a long way since then!) and in some years no passengers were killed on the railways at all. As he points out, however, the figure for road deaths includes people killed in every way, including suicides and heart attacks at the wheel, while on the railways, many people are at risk besides passengers. In fact, between 1951 and 1960, an average of 327 people were killed on the railways every year. This is still a much lower figure than the number of road deaths of course but, as Leeming says, a direct comparison is misleading because it takes no account of the number of people at risk — there are fewer at risk on the railways than on the roads.
 
Leeming did not put forward this example to try to show that roads may actually be safer than railways, but to demonstrate the need to be certain to compare like with like before drawing conclusions from statistics. He was a great believer in the value of statistics, if collected and analysed properly:
'…we must have figures. If properly gathered they are facts expressed in numerical form. They must not be rejected because they are inconvenient. If they are rejected, what have we left? Nothing more than dogmatic statement, unsupported by facts, and that is quite valueless, or even harmful…'
I am sure that statement will strike a chord with many readers!
 
In his book, Leeming describes an example of how jumping to conclusions about the causes of road accidents can result in a failure to address the real problem, with the result that more people will continue to be injured or killed unnecessarily:
'Two men left a public house on the advice of the landlord, who thought that, although they were not actually drunk, they had had enough. He did not think the driver incapable of driving. They went on northwards three or four miles, and came to a cross roads called Warmwell Cross. There the driver shot straight across, paying no attention to a Halt sign. A lorry, passing from east to west, collided with their car, and both men were killed.'
Most people now, as then, would simply ascribe this accident to drink-driving and give it no further thought. Leeming points out, however, that when a traffic engineer investigates an accident, the object should be to establish all the factors that were present, without ascribing blame to anyone. His definition of a factor is that, had it been different, it would have altered or prevented the accident.
 
On that basis, Leeming identified five factors that contributed to the accident: chance, human error, deception in the road layout, the law (explained below), and drink. The first two are fairly obvious: if the lorry had not been driving along the main road at that precise moment, the accident would not have happened, despite the car driver's error in failing to stop.
 
Leeming's investigation into this and several other accidents at the site eventually revealed a deception in the road layout that was to trap many drivers. The cross roads was beyond a slight crest, although the Halt sign was before the crest (this was in the days before the current Stop and Give Way signs). Although a stop line and Halt marking were painted on the carriageway at the junction itself, the road surface was falling away from approaching drivers, so that the markings were virtually invisible until it was too late to stop. Drivers familiar with the area — including Leeming and his staff — knew where the junction was, so they never had to rely on spotting the markings. It was strangers who were caught out, sometimes with fatal consequences.
 
Leeming includes the law in his list of factors for two reasons. The first is that the regulations concerning Halt signs at that time meant that they were not placed at the junction itself, nor did they tell drivers the distance to the junction. More importantly, the desire of the police to charge drivers with criminal offences — from failing to obey a Halt sign to causing death by dangerous driving — prevented Leeming from discovering the trap. Eventually, he organised an experiment involving the police, who observed drivers' behaviour, and those who failed to stop were pulled up and asked to talk to one of Leeming's staff. When the local press got wind of this, they ran a story condemning the fact that drivers were going unpunished! The experiment had to be abandoned after just one day as a result, but not before one driver had given them the vital clue that led to the junction being improved, with a dramatic reduction in the frequency of accidents.
 
So, whether the accident involving the two men would have happened had the driver not been drinking is anyone's guess. It is a salutary lesson, however, in the need to look beyond the obvious.
 

Top2. Accident Rates
Leeming's observations on accident rates, including international comparisons. Some of his conclusions may surprise you.


In my first article, I explained John Leeming's background, his work in researching the causes of road accidents, and how he learned that it is necessary to consider all the factors that might have contributed to them — not simply jump to what appears to be the obvious conclusion. I will now look at his observations on accident rates and how they have often been misrepresented. First of all, he explodes the myth that the invention of the motor vehicle led to an entirely new cause of deaths and injuries, as if accidents involving transport had never occurred previously. As he puts it:
'We cannot have had motor vehicle accidents before motors, but these have replaced other forms of transport, and extended the amount of travel, so it is reasonable to compare modern motor accidents with those which occurred in pre-motor days in those types of travel which would now be done by motor. Thus some of the railway accidents, all the accidents in horse transport, and many drownings a century ago, would be comparable with modern road accidents.'
He illustrates this with a table comparing death rates per million population by the different travel modes, from the 1860s to 1963. His original table separated male and female death rates, but I have combined them in reproducing the table, to save space:
 
Type of accident1863-18701891-19001931-19381963
Railway76632210
Road143107311278
Drowning2511787037
Total470348403325
Deaths per million population, England and Wales.
 
Source: Deaths by violence 1837-1937, Journal of Royal Statistical Society 1941; and Registrar General's Statistical Reviews.

 

Death by drowning was far more common when canals were Britain's main transport routes.
The figures for drowning are included because, as Leeming says, rivers, canals and coastal shipping were used much more for transport in the past than they are today. Note that in the 1860s, the death rate by drowning was almost as high as the death rate on the roads in 1963 — and that rate today would be little more than half the 1963 level, even allowing for population increase. By the same token, the death rate on the roads in the 1860s (long before the motor vehicle was invented) was just over half the 1963 level, so our death rate on the roads today is much the same as it was 140 years ago! As Leeming observes, there has never been a time when travel was not dangerous. Yet the invention of the motor vehicle, far from increasing the overall risk of travel, has actually reduced it; and that reduction is even greater when the increase in the amount of travel, made possible by the car, is taken into account.
 
Leeming also discusses 'incidental' deaths, associated with transport in some way, but frequently as a result of an absence of an efficient transport system. He mentions as an example a television report in which a young woman in an African country had died from a disease that could easily have been treated, but she was too far from a hospital and had no means of getting there in time. He also notes that, in the USA, the highest death rates from road accidents occur in the sparsely populated, rural states, while the lowest rates occur in the more densely developed eastern states. This must be due, at least partly, to the fact that help will be available more quickly, on average, to people injured in road accidents in the eastern states. Thus some of the deaths in the less populated states are incidental deaths, due to delay in help arriving and the difficulty of getting the injured to hospital.
 
Leeming summarises his view of the beneficial effects of motor vehicles in reducing incidental deaths as follows:
'The motor must have very much reduced the incidental deaths in such ways as making it easier for doctors to visit their patients, in conveying those patients to hospital more quickly and comfortably, in enabling fire engines to reach fires quicker, and possibly in other ways, such as its having eliminated the filth due to horses in the streets of the cities. I am as old as the motor vehicle, and I can still remember the horrible mess in the London streets, and in the mews at the back of the big houses. This must have caused much fly-borne disease.'

(A topical example of incidental deaths is the controversy about speed humps and their detrimental effect on the response times of the emergency services. This was brought sharply into focus earlier this year, when Sigurd Reinton, chairman of the London Ambulance Service, claimed that up to 800 victims of cardiac arrest die in London for every minute of delay, caused by traffic calming and traffic light timings aimed at deterring drivers. This compares with the 300 who die in traffic accidents in the capital each year — a figure that has not changed significantly as a result of these highway obstructions. The fire service faces similar difficulties in carrying out its life-saving duties — each road hump is said to add ten seconds to the time it takes to reach a fire or other incident.)
 
Leeming denounces the 'propagandists', as he calls them, who bemoan the death toll from road accidents while ignoring the positive effects of motor vehicles in saving lives. It is the widely-held but false view that motor vehicles have caused a huge increase in deaths and injuries, where none occurred before, that has led to the culture of blame where road accidents are concerned. This in turn has prevented the true causes of accidents from being discovered and addressed, as explained in the previous article.
 

An interesting piece of research carried out by Leeming was to compare death rates on an international basis. Work done by the then Road Research Laboratory had resulted in a predictive formula being devised, to estimate the likely road deaths in a country depending on its population and the number of registered motor vehicles. This Smeed formula (named after the researcher who developed it) was based on the figures reported from twenty countries in 1938. When Leeming tested the formula against figures from twenty-six countries in 1961, he found it no longer fitted very well without changing the 'constant' part of the original formula. In devising the new constant, he had to apply correction factors to allow for the ways in which different countries classify an accident as fatal, according to the period of time between the accident and when death occurred — a factor often ignored in comparing international death rates.
 

Would changing sides increase accidents?
In making these comparisons, Leeming noticed that countries where the rule of the road was to drive on the left had consistently lower numbers of road deaths than the formula predicted. The exceptions were Australia and South Africa, where the numbers of deaths were roughly in accord with the predictions, but Leeming thought that this could be partly accounted for by their low population densities, where incidental deaths (due to delays in obtaining medical assistance) could be significant, as described earlier. Excluding these two countries, the average death rate where the left-hand rule of the road prevails worked out at around two-thirds of the rate for right-hand rule countries.
 
Leeming acknowledged that the sample of left-hand rule countries he had to work with was small, and he was very careful not to claim that his results proved that the differences were due to the rule of the road. He thought, however, that they indicated a need for further research. I am not aware that any such research has been carried out: there are no reports currently available on the subject from the Transport Research Laboratory, and it would be necessary to subscribe to one of the international databases of transport research to carry out a complete historical check.
 
The conversion of Sweden from left-hand to right-hand rule in 1967 is an obvious case where the hypothesis could be tested. Even there, all other possible variables that might have affected the before and after accident rates would have to be identified and assessed — it would be an even greater challenge comparing different countries.
 
But what if there were a real difference in road deaths depending on which side of the road we drive? Britain has one of the best road safety records in the world — is that due, if only in part, to the fact that we drive on the left? If there is a real difference, could it be due to the fact that around 90 per cent of the population is right-handed? — do right-handed people find driving on the left more natural than driving on the right? A nice piece of research for someone!
 
Leeming also quoted the results of some work by researchers in the USA, comparing deaths per vehicle mile (not the number of deaths) between individual states. Leeming takes up the story:
'They took into account thirty factors which it was thought might affect the death rate. Among these were included the annual consumption of wine, of spirits and of malt beverages — taken individually — the amount spent on road maintenance, the minimum temperature, certain of the legal measures such as the amount spent on police, the number of police per 100,000 inhabitants, the follow-up programme on dangerous drivers, the quality of driver testing, and so on. 'The thirty factors were finally reduced to six on elimination of those which were found to have small or negligible effect. The final six were:
  1. (a) The percentage of the total state highway mileage that is rural.
  2. (b) The per cent increase in motor vehicle registration.
  3. (c) The extent of motor vehicle inspection.
  4. (d) The percentage of state-administered highway that is surfaced.
  5. (e) The average yearly minimum temperature.
  6. (f) The income per capita.
'These are placed in descending order of importance. These six accounted for 70% of the variations in the rate.'
Note that only one of these — vehicle inspections — is related in any way to legislation affecting drivers. The research was carried out before the 'Ten-Year Test' (as the MoT test was originally called) had been introduced in Britain, so it is probable that vehicle inspection regimes were in their infancy in the USA also. It is unlikely that this factor would be of as much relevance to death rates today. It is also unlikely that the percentage of roads that are surfaced would be of much relevance to death rates in Britain — although, with the deterioration in maintenance standards in recent years, perhaps it would be!
 
The research was also carried out before the federal 55 mph speed limit was introduced in the 1970s, and individual US states had widely differing speed limits — yet these do not appear in the final six factors at all.
 
The most important factor — the proportion of rural highway mileage — again shows the importance of 'incidental' deaths. The lowest death rates were found in Rhode Island and Connecticut (both densely populated, eastern states); the highest in South Carolina and Nevada.
 

Top3. Road Improvement
The results of Leeming's research on the effects of road improvements on accident rates.


My previous article looked at J J Leeming's studies of road accidents in comparisons with other forms of travel, and internationally. This time I am going to describe the work he did in studying the effects of physical road improvements on accidents — the effects on accidents of legal restrictions and prohibitions will be the subject of my next instalment.
 
Leeming starts his chapter on road improvements by describing the correct way in which before-and-after studies should be carried out. He explains why three years is normally considered to be the best compromise for the length of the 'before' and 'after' periods: any shorter and chance variations can have too much influence; any longer and there is an increasing risk that extraneous factors may be affecting accident frequency. Accidents occurring during the construction period should be excluded, as they may not be representative of either the original or modified layout.
 
A proper before-and-after study should compare the actual number of accidents in the after period with the number that would have been expected to occur in the absence of the improvement. This compensates for any changes in accident frequency that may occur over time for reasons other than the improvement itself. In order to calculate the expected accidents, a control area needs to be monitored throughout the before-and-after period. This has to be large enough (either in physical area, or by selecting a sufficient number of individual sites of similar characteristics) for the impact of the improvement under study to have no significant effect on it. By comparing the before and after accidents in the control area, a factor can be calculated, which is then applied to the before figure for the location under study.
 
Needless to say, very few road schemes these days are subject to such rigorous analysis — and raw accident figures often give a misleading impression. Another important factor, that is often overlooked, is the need for a before-and-after study to include all roads where traffic flows could be significantly altered by the scheme. Leeming refers to this in his analysis of the effects of building major new roads, as we shall see later, but it is equally applicable to modern 'improvements' such as road humps and other forms of traffic calming — which frequently cause significant numbers of drivers to find other routes. This is one of the reasons why the claims of large accident reductions for such schemes are not reflected when whole areas are looked at.
 
Leeming's research into the effectiveness of road improvements involved obtaining information on as many schemes as possible from all over the country. These ranged from new motorways and bypasses, through carriageway realignments and junction improvements, to surface dressing of bends. The results of his analyses are summarised in a table in his book (too complex to reproduce here), showing the number of schemes studied in each category, the ratio of accidents in the before and after periods, and the statistical significance of the changes. Where possible, he has split accidents into slight, serious and fatal, as certain types of scheme were found to have different impacts on accident severity.
 
The following paragraph contains Leeming's comments on the results set out in his table. He clearly felt very strongly, as the whole paragraph was in italics:
'It is important to realize that the results given in the table are what we have achieved, not what we could achieve…Government policy has always been directed to the saving of money — 'economy' is the jargon word — rather than to the saving of life. As a result of this, many of the civil engineering works done were substandard even at the time, so some of the figures for reductions obtained are disappointing. I have also included all the figures sent me, even when they seemed unfavourable, and have not selected convenient ones.'
No doubt we can all relate to his view of Government policy concerning expenditure on the roads, 35 years after those words were written — and how refreshing to see such a principled approach to accident studies.
 

I will now look at some of his findings on particular types of road improvement, starting with the impact of new motorways, bypasses and dual carriageways.
 

New motorways have greatly reduced accidents
As we have already seen, before-and-after studies, to be valid, must look at all roads on which traffic flows are affected. This is very significant where major new roads are concerned and Leeming has included both old and new roads in his studies of motorways and bypasses. For a sample of five new motorways, accidents of all severities were found to have reduced by 19%, and fatal and serious by 28%, both figures statistically significant at the 5% level (i.e. they could not have occurred by chance more than one time in twenty). For a sample of 19 bypasses, total accidents fell by 33%, which was significant at the 1% level (only a one in one hundred possibility of occurring by chance). Fatal and serious accidents fell by 12%, but this was not statistically significant.
 
These results are more impressive than they may seem at first, when it is remembered that they relate to approximately twice the length of road compared with before the motorway or bypass was built. They also relate to a higher traffic flow in total, especially for the larger schemes, due to additional or longer trips taking place — 'generated' traffic. Leeming quotes from a study by the former Road Research Laboratory into the effects of the M1 motorway: in its first year after opening it was estimated to have resulted in a net saving of 1,000 casualties, including 400 serious injuries and 30 fatalities.
 
For dual carriageways, the overall reduction in accidents at 39 locations was 32%, which was significant at the 5% level, although a 12% reduction in fatal and serious accidents was not significant. However, Leeming noted that two of the schemes studied, both of which were improvements to the A1, resulted in a substantial increase in accidents. In both cases, the problems were associated with junctions, where the money had not been made available to change single-level intersections to proper systems of flyovers and slip-roads — an example of the penny-pinching referred to in Leeming's quote, above.
 
It is ironic that Leeming should have identified the A1 as an example of the deficiencies in the design of some dual carriageway schemes, when today there is still a section of that road in Notinghamshire with a similar problem — and the Highways Agency's solution has been to reduce the speed limit to 50mph and install cameras, rather than rebuild the junctions to eliminate accidents!
 

One of the few remaining sections of 3 lane road
The next type of improvement to be scrutinised by Leeming was the widening of two-lane single carriageway roads to three lanes. This type of improvement was more common in the 1950s and '60s than it is today, although 'wide single carriageways', as they are now called, are still sometimes built. There was, and still is to some extent, a popular perception that three-lane roads are dangerous, as Leeming explains:
'This matter is of special interest because the three-lane road is often described as a killer. This is an example of the attitude of mind which thinks that because something 'could' or 'ought' to cause accidents, argal it does. The argument is that head-on collisions occur frequently because drivers travelling in opposite directions try to pass at the same time.'
Yet Leeming's study of 37 such schemes showed not only that total accidents had reduced by a quarter, but fatal accidents had fallen by half — which was significant at the 5% level. He also found that long, continuous lengths of three-lane road are safer than short sections, as drivers tend to scramble to pass slower traffic on the latter. He illustrated this by quoting the example of the A38 between Gloucester and Bristol, which was progressively widened to three lanes between 1958 and 1965. The accident rate fell linearly as more and more of the road was widened — on completion, the rate was half that at the start.
 
Leeming summed up the prejudice against three-lane roads as follows:
'The unfavourable attitude to the three-lane road may have arisen because when fatalities do happen they are likely to be given more publicity in the Press, which may think that they are of special interest owing to the popular prejudice. It may also arise because of the concentration on the driver in the propaganda, leading people to think that if he is given an opportunity to drive dangerously he will take it, an idea which has no foundation in fact.'
The realignment of two-lane roads, to eliminate bottlenecks and black spots, was also found to be very successful in reducing accidents. At 53 sites studied, all accidents were reduced by nearly 70%, which was statistically significant at the 0.1% level (only a one in a thousand possibility of it happening by chance), and fatal accidents reduced by 75%, which was significant at the 5% level.
 
Improvements to crossroads and junctions were next to come under Leeming's scrutiny. A simple crossroads junction is often the site of accidents, when a driver fails to realise the need to give way to crossing traffic. Replacing crossroads with roundabouts or staggered junctions showed accident reductions of 60-70%, as did other types of junction improvement. All these reductions were highly significant statistically.
 
The surface dressing of bends to counter skidding accidents showed the most dramatic accident reductions of all. At 31 sites, all accidents were reduced by 87% (significant at the 0.1% level), and fatal and serious accidents were reduced by 79% (significant at the 1.0% level). You may recall that, in my first article, I showed that it was the effectiveness of this type of work that caused Leeming's 'conversion' from the popular view that all accidents are simply due to bad driving. He expands on this in his discussion of the lessons to be learnt from the results of his accident analyses:
'…by no means all accidents are due to wilful and deliberate bad driving. They may be due to error of judgement, ignorance, incompetence, carelessness, but these are all human characteristics, and are not confined to drivers. They cause many other accidents as well as road ones. The results of these errors seem to happen very often to people who are honestly trying to do their best — such as it is — and trying to avoid an accident. Their best may not be very good, but it is their best.'
He uses the danger caused by slippery surfaces to illustrate the 'traps' that drivers can fall into as a result of misleading layouts or road conditions. He points out that, since engineers cannot tell whether a road surface is slippery simply by looking at it, how could a driver be expected to do so? He also points out that even an experienced engineer cannot tell whether a location will have accidents, so the untrained public are certainly not able to — yet highway engineers constantly receive demands for action to tackle 'dangerous' places, "before someone is killed". But as Leeming says, the places that should receive attention are those where accidents have actually occurred. He explains:
'It can safely be said that places which look dangerous do not have accidents, or very few. They happen at places which do not look dangerous. The reason for this is simple. The motorist is as intelligent as the 'local people'. If a place looks dangerous, he can see that it is, so he takes care and there are no accidents. He does not want to have an accident, and he will take care at obviously dangerous places. Accidents happen when there is some trap in road conditions which is not obvious at a glance, or where the conditions are too complicated for the limited human machine to deal with in the short time available. The driver has only a fraction of a second to size up a situation, and there may be some trap which he cannot see in this short time.'
Leeming's thinking here is clearly at odds with the established 'wisdom' of the time — and subsequently. How many accidents are occurring on the roads today as a result of the sort of 'traps' he describes, but which are still simply put down to bad driving? As we know, the prejudice against drivers today has crystallised into the assumption that virtually all accidents are caused by 'speeding', so no action is required other than to force drivers to travel more slowly everywhere. This false and simplistic assumption is costing lives, as the real causes of accidents are not being investigated.
 

Top4. Legal Engineering
Leeming's conclusions about the effectiveness of what he calls 'legal engineering' — including speed limits, on which he has some very strong views!


In my previous article I described Leeming's before-and-after studies into the effects on road accidents of physical highway improvements. He also studied the impact of 'legal engineering' measures, which regulate the use of the roads through legal restriction or prohibition. He begins with the following statement which, as usual, hits the nail right on the head:
'Legal engineering measures depend for any success that they may have on the regulation or law being founded on some principle that is of real value for safety. This may seem to be what Mr Punch calls a "glimpse of the obvious", but it is usually forgotten, and most of our legal measures are really based on hunch, or on the idea that anything which penalizes or restricts motorists is ipso facto good.'
He begins his chapter on legal engineering by looking at double white lines and clearways, both of which are widely assumed to be 'a good thing'. Despite studying quite large samples, however, the modest reduction in accidents at double white line sites did not enable him to say with confidence that the lines had significantly affected accidents; clearways appeared to have even less impact.
 

Most of the chapter on legal engineering is devoted to speed limits and Leeming illustrates the popular view (as prevalent today as it was then) with a couple of quotes:
'No speed limit — anywhere, any time, any place — has ever increased the number of accidents.' Adam Raphael, the Guardian, June 1966.
'The evidence is fairly conclusive that speed limits, both in Britain and elsewhere, markedly reduce speeds and casualties, even though they are not universally obeyed.' Mrs Barbara Castle, Minister of Transport, May 1966.
Leeming refers to these quotes when he starts to review the evidence concerning the effectiveness of speed limits:
'The public has complete faith in speed limits as a panacea for all accidents, and the statements made by Adam Raphael and Mrs Castle…are quite typical. Goen in the USA has claimed that the accidents could be reduced to almost any amount by speed limits, the extent of the reduction being only limited by what people are prepared to stand in the cost of the reduction of speed, while in this country, the Pedestrians Association has advocated an overall speed limit of 50 mile/h, which it was claimed would cut accidents by 50%.
'In spite of what Mrs Castle said, the evidence in favour of speed limits is both ambiguous and contradictory, provided one considers all the evidence. Much of the case in favour of them is based on the habit of sweeping inconvenient evidence under the carpet. Adam Raphael's statement is wildly at variance with the facts.'
Leeming then describes the results of his own before-and-after studies of the effect of newly posted speed limits on accidents. On a total of 56 lengths of road where new 30, 40 or 50mph limits had been introduced, a reduction in accidents was seen at seventeen, there was no appreciable change at twenty-two, and there was an increase at the remaining seventeen. The 40 and 50mph limits both showed increases in fatal accidents, of 9% and 12% respectively. While these were not statistically significant, Leeming points out that the results supported each other, so there is a suspicion that there may have been a real change.
 
In particular, Leeming found that there was a substantial increase in fatal accidents at five of the 26 sites where new 40mph limits had been introduced, including one where fatal accidents had increased from three before to nine after. By contrast, where 30mph limits had been raised to 40mph (41 sites studied), there was no significant change in total accidents (a 1% reduction overall) or in serious and fatal accidents combined (a 9% reduction).
 
Perhaps the strongest indication of Leeming's refusal to be bound by any preconceptions was his willingness to challenge the value of the 30mph speed limit, introduced in built-up areas in 1935. He points out that a direct comparison between the numbers of road deaths in that year with those in 1934 is misleading. First, 1934 was an unusually bad year for road deaths; if the figure for 1935 is compared with the average for the three previous years, the fall in deaths was just over 600, rather than 800. Second, he points out that other measures, including pedestrian crossings, were introduced in 1935, and these must have had some effect on accidents; this period also saw a relaxation of restraint in public sector spending, so it is possible that an unusually large number of road improvements were completed in 1935.
 
(The introduction of the 30mph limit may have been a knee-jerk response to the 'bad' year in 1934, so at least part of the subsequent fall was simply a regression to the mean. The total number of road deaths in 1934, 7,343, was almost identical to that in 1930. Between those years — during the only period in British motoring history when there were no speed limits — the number fell to a 'low' of 6,667 in 1932. Of the reduction in deaths between 1934 and 1935, nearly 500 are accounted for by a fall in pedestrian deaths, so Leeming's speculation about the introduction of pedestrian crossings may well be right.)
 
No proper analysis of the effects of the 30mph speed limit was made at a national level. However, in Leeming's old county, Oxfordshire, Lt-Col Bennett had carried out his own before-and-after study. His figures are shown in the table below. Type of accident Number of accidents Two years before Two years after FatalInjuryNon-injury 11280371 8296337 Total 662 641 Accidents in built-up areas of Oxfordshire, before and after the introduction of the 30mph speed limit. These figures clearly show that there was no significant change in accidents numbers in Oxfordshire as a result of introducing the 30mph limit. Leeming also points out that the fall in fatalities, while consistent with random variation, could also have been partly accounted for by the opening of the Oxford northern by-pass in May 1935, which took traffic away from a notorious accident black spot where there had been several fatalities.
 
Leeming's summary of his evidence on the effectiveness of speed limits is clear:
'As far as the evidence goes, and all my samples except that for the 50 limit are reasonably large, they indicate no change except for the possibility that the 40 and 50 limits may increase fatal accidents. This is also strengthened by the conclusion from a large sample that relaxing 30 limits to 40 also makes no change in accidents. Certainly, the evidence I have been able to get lends no support of any sort, and even refutes the ideas of Goen and the Pedestrians Association that lower speed limits would make a dramatic reduction in deaths. It is more probable that they might have the reverse effect, and increase them. 'The statement made by Mrs Castle that there is conclusive evidence that speed limits materially reduce accidents, cannot be accepted. There is no such conclusive evidence.'

Leeming then examines the public's attitude to speed limits. He refers to a survey carried out by the Road Research Laboratory (forerunner of TRL) of the attitude of motorists towards the 70mph speed limit, then newly introduced. The survey showed a majority in favour. Leeming failed to see the point of the study:
'It was a foregone conclusion, because everyone, strangely enough including motorists themselves, is in favour of restrictions on motorists, and everyone indoctrinated with the propaganda which says that punishment and repression of motorists is the solution of the problem. Neither can I see the relevance of the study, because what we want to know is whether the limit stops accidents. Whether people like it or not is not material to that. I am surprised that the majority in favour was so small.'
He then describes various incidents that demonstrate the public's irrational faith in speed limits. For instance, at one party hosted by lady councillors for the wives of chief officers of Leeming's authority (Dorset County Council), one of the councillors went up to Leeming's wife and said, "Your husband is murdering our children!" This was because Leeming had successfully stopped a speed limit being introduced on a wide, straight road, where there were no buildings except for a new school. He had argued that there was a good footpath, separated from the road by a verge; that the danger, if any, was only for an hour or two per day, and only for about two hundred days in the year; and, if there was a danger, the responsibility rested with those who had decided to put the school there in the first place! In the ten years since the decision had been made not to impose a speed limit, no accidents had occurred.
 
In arguing against the introduction of a speed limit in this instance, Leeming had made the following point:
'…to punish a motorist because what he was doing might be a danger in an hour's, or a week's, or a month's time — according to circumstances — but not at the time it was done, was a monstrous tyranny.'
This very powerful and succinct statement perfectly summarises the injustice of fixed and arbitrary speed limits, automatically enforced around the clock, with no account taken of whether the actual speeds involved present a danger in the circumstances prevailing at the time. The perverse logic of those who demand speed limits is summed up by the response Leeming received on numerous occasions, when he asked people why a limit was wanted and what the danger was: "Oh well, we know it won't stop accidents, but it will enable the police to prosecute motorists!"
 
Even more extreme examples of crazy thinking are given in the following extract:
'On one length of road there was a strong local agitation for a speed limit. Analysis of the accidents showed that there were none associated with high speeds, but there were some associated with vehicles stopping at the shop, so the Council provided a lay-by there, which seemed to stop these accidents. At about the same time the Parish Council took the law into its own hands, as could be done in those days, by putting up some rudimentary street lighting, so that the limit had to be posted, although it was opposed by everyone, including the police. In the three years before the posting of the limit, there had been twelve accidents. In the three years after, there were nineteen, in spite of the lay-by having reduced the accidents at the shop, so it is probable that the limit produced a substantial increase in accidents. As was my usual practice, I reported this to the local Road Safety Committee. At the meeting the Parish Council representative said: "My Council doesn't mind if the accidents have increased. We have got our speed limit!" The Road Safety Committee supported him! 'The mental obliquity of people who impose a limit to make the road safer, and then do not mind when the accidents increase, is almost unbelievable. But it happened! 'At one place there was a strong agitation for a speed limit because there had been a fatal accident. There had been one — an old man in the eighties knocked down by a small boy on a pedal cycle. 'I could multiply such cases.'
So there does not appear to have been any greater understanding in the public's mind about the value (or otherwise) of speed limits thirty-five years ago than there is now. The difference today is the lack of political will to resist irrational demands — or, in many cases, a desire to exploit public ignorance in order to use speed limits to further the political aims of anti-car zealots.
 

Top5. Speed Limits
Leeming's analysis of evidence from the USA on the effectiveness of speed limits, and his views on why speed limits are not more successful.


In the previous article I looked at the conclusions Leeming had reached on the effectiveness of speed limits in reducing accidents, based on before-and-after studies in the UK; and at his views on public attitudes to speed limits. Leeming also considered evidence from the USA, and again found that it was ambiguous and contradictory. Overall, it seemed that differences in speed limits between individual states had little effect on accident rates.
 
One study in particular is of interest, in view of today's policy of massively increasing the issue of speeding tickets through camera enforcement. In Connecticut, the Governor instituted a strict enforcement campaign in 1956, with the driving licences suspended of those caught speeding. Leeming showed a graph of the death rate in that state from 1946 to 1966, to which he added two regression lines, both statistically significant at the 1% level. The first showed a steady downward trend in the death rate — until 1959, when the second line showed that the trend reversed and started rising again. In 1955, the last year before the campaign began, just 372 drivers had their licences suspended — in 1956 it was over 10,000. By 1966, over 18,000 drivers a year were losing their licences in Connecticut, yet the death rate was increasing. The parallel with Britain in 2003 is uncanny!
 
Leeming also noted that in Nebraska it was found that the relaxation of speed limits was sometimes followed by a marked decrease in accidents, especially fatal ones; and the official instructions for posting speed limits in Illinois stated that unreasonable speed limits can cause an increase in accidents.
 
At the time Leeming was writing, many states in the USA had adopted as the basis of speed limit setting the 85th percentile speed measurement, i.e. the speed that 85% of drivers would not exceed in the absence of a limit. As we know, this has been the basis of speed limit setting in Britain since the 1970s — until recently, that is. The rationale behind the method is explained by Leeming:
'This means that the more responsible drivers fix the limit. The idea behind it is that at least 90% of drivers are reasonable, responsible people who can be trusted to drive at a safe speed. The figure of 85% is then on the safe side. It is argued that if the more responsible section of drivers has set the limit, the remainder will realize that it is reasonable. It is claimed that timings of traffic confirm this, and that remarkable reductions in accidents have been made by such limits. It certainly does seem to be a reasonable way of doing things, and much better than our way of letting the limit be decided by the local busybody. (This is not just a bit of sarcasm. It is the ghastly truth. I speak from much experience, and instances of it can be seen frequently in our local press.)'
The case for setting speed limits on the 85th percentile principle is perhaps summarised best by the following quote, which can be found today on the website of the Arizona highways department:
"The normally careful and competent actions of a reasonable person should be considered legal."
In some parts of the USA at the time Leeming was writing, speed limits were not absolute but advisory: it was not illegal to exceed the limit, but if an accident occurred the driver would be considered responsible unless he could prove otherwise. Conversely, if a driver had an accident within the speed limit, his responsibility had to be proved. In 1948, more than half the states in the USA used advisory limits, often combined with the 85th percentile principle. Leeming noted that the number of states using advisory limits had fallen, often because of police influence. As Leeming observed:
'This type of limit is much more difficult to enforce, and enforcement is, of course, much more important than saving life.'

Leeming clearly felt that advisory speed limits are preferable in accident reduction terms to mandatory ones, as he explains:
'It puts the driver in a position of trust, and leaves him with some room for discretion. At certain times exceeding a posted limit may not be dangerous, and then an absolute limit becomes merely prohibition for the sake of prohibition. Also, if a posted limit is strictly obeyed, it will reduce traffic to speeds much below the nominal limit, and even cause long queues, by making it difficult or impossible to pass slower vehicles. This, in its turn, may very likely produce more accidents.'
The last part of that quote coincides with the view expressed by the Suffolk Coroner, at an inquest in 1996, concerning the possible implication of Suffolk's reduced speed limits in at least one fatal accident that year. Increases in accidents have also occurred in other counties where unreasonable speed limits have been introduced, such as Surrey and Oxfordshire. A single driver, rigidly observing an unnecessarily low speed limit, can create lengthy queues, causing frustration in following drivers that can lead to dangerous overtaking manoeuvres being attempted.
 
Leeming carried out extensive speed surveys in Dorset, and found that posting a speed limit made very little difference to speeds. With the exception of a minority, drivers adjusted their speed to the conditions, and a speed limit made little difference — findings that have been replicated across the world. What Leeming did find occasionally, however, was that where a speed limit was introduced that was actually higher than the speed at which traffic would otherwise travel, speeds would sometimes increase. He gave as an example a 40mph limit introduced on a previously unrestricted section of road. The limit had been opposed by Leeming, but local pressure forced it through. It was found that the most frequent speed range adopted by drivers rose from 30-32mph before the limit to 38-40mph afterwards; in the three years before the speed limit, there had been 16 accidents — in the three years afterwards there were 30.
 
The tendency to drive up to a speed limit is one of the strongest arguments against the use of blanket limits, since drivers may be tempted to believe that they are no longer responsible for deciding on a safe speed — the thinking has been done for them. This ties in with Leeming's comment, quoted in an earlier instalment, that accidents rarely occur at places that look dangerous, because drivers can see they are dangerous and take great care — accidents occur where no danger is apparent. Leeming alludes to this in suggesting reasons for the lack of success of speed limits:
'Speed limits are not conspicuously successful…In general, it seems that they are more successful — perhaps less unsuccessful would be a better way of putting it — in reducing minor accidents than serious and fatal, particularly fatal.
'We can say with confidence that the driver is very frequently not wholly responsible for the accidents. It is therefore possible that the exaggerated claims made for speed limits may lead other road users to be less careful after the posting of the limit, thinking that all is now well, and that the place has been made quite safe. The same remark may apply to other motorists entering the road from side turnings.'
Drivers not wholly responsible for accidents?! If Leeming were alive today he would be vilified for such a heretical statement! While he was at it, Leeming also dismissed the popular claim that "the cause of accidents is speed" (the forerunner of "speed kills" in today's sound bite culture). He pointed out that speed is relative and, if speed itself were the cause of accidents, motorways should have the highest accident rates — but instead they have the lowest. In referring to the table in which he set out the results of his studies into the effectiveness of various measures, he says:
'…the table shows that in fact some of the works which reduce accidents increase speed, and that these works often reduce fatal accidents more than minor ones, while those which reduce speed, such as speed limits, seem to increase fatal accidents more than minor ones. This is what I meant by the apparently astounding statement …that I had spent my life increasing the speed of traffic to reduce accidents.'
Leeming was highly sceptical of claims that accidents would be reduced dramatically if the 30mph speed limit in built-up areas were rigidly enforced. Even in his day, claims were being made that strict observance of the limit would halve accidents. Leeming was adamant that there is nothing to support that conclusion. He described a study carried out by the Road Research Laboratory that appeared to 'prove' the benefits of strict enforcement:
'In a recent study by the RRL of the enforcement of the limit in several parts of the country it was found that speeds were reduced, and that accidents fell by 25%, though the report says that this was not necessarily due to the reduction in speed, but might be due to the presence of the police improving road-user behaviour — in all road-users of course…The report made its estimate of the saving in accidents by taking six sites, but only used five. There was one at which there was a 50% increase in accidents, and this was left out of the sample on the grounds of unusual circumstances. I feel a little doubtful as to the propriety of this, and have not done it in my own samples, which…include all the sites sent in.'
So the selective use of statistics is not a new phenomenon! The admission by the RRL that improved road user behaviour, rather than reduced speeds themselves, might explain the accident reduction accords with a view I have long held on the impact of road safety initiatives: when controversial and well publicised measures are introduced, people are aware of them and, for an initial period, will concentrate more on their driving. Since most accidents are caused by human error on the part of one or more road users, anything which concentrates people's minds on the job in hand is likely to lead to a reduction in accidents, whether the measure has any intrinsic value as a road safety tool or not. Once people get used to it and revert to their old ways, accidents return to the previous level.
 
So, what can we conclude from all this? Badly set, mandatory speed limits are, as the ABD has always said, at best ineffective and at worst are positively harmful. They also alienate drivers and reduce respect for the law in general. Perhaps the best conclusion is provided by Leeming himself:
'We might make speed limits more effective by posting them on the 85th percentile principle, and by making them advisory. They would then command the respect of the majority of drivers, which they very definitely do not now. If they really commanded respect, they would then become self-enforcing. Timings show very clearly that drivers adjust their speed to the conditions, quite regardless of whether a limit is posted or not.'
What is so frustrating is that the negative impact on road safety of unrealistic, rigidly enforced speed limits was known all those years ago, as a result of experience in Britain, the USA and elsewhere. Yet all that knowledge has been dismissed by the ignorant fanatics in charge of too many highway authorities and 'safety camera partnerships' today. Their view seems to be perfectly summed up by the response from a parish councillor, quoted by Leeming in the previous instalment: "My Council doesn't mind if the accidents have increased. We have got our speed limit!"
 

Top6. Road Signs
Leeming's views on the use (or overuse) of road signs, and the 'propaganda' surrounding road safety.


My previous two articles have covered J J Leeming's research and views on speed limits and their effectiveness (or lack of it). One of the points he made was that the public have an unwarranted faith in the value of speed limits — he then went on to show that the same is true about signs. Whenever accidents occurred he received requests from all and sundry to 'put up a sign'. As he says:
'They seem to think that there is some sort of magic charm, or a radar set, in a sign, which automatically makes the driver slow down — itself of course the one single infallible remedy for all accidents — and so makes things safe. Many times, when I have had requests for signs …I have asked what sign would be appropriate, they have answered: "Oh, any sign will do, to make the motorist slow down!" '
Leeming also noted that the people who ask for signs frequently do not notice them when they are provided. He quoted one incident in which a lady telephoned him to complain about the lack of a school warning sign in her village 'to protect the children'. Leeming advised her to look out of her dining room window, and she would see the sign — which had been there for fifteen years!
 

Warning signs have their uses, but excessive signs are counter-productive. Warning of every conceivable hazard that drivers might encounter on this country lane would be absurd.
Another problem with signs is their overuse and the frequent exaggeration of the dangers ahead. Leeming quoted as an example his own experience of driving in one county where there was excessive use of signs warning of steep hills; after passing several such signs and finding no significant gradient, he ignored the next one — only to be faced with a steep hill and a sharp bend on it! As Leeming says:
'This is happening all over the country. It is littered with assorted ironmongery meaning little or nothing or much …and the motorist naturally — and rightly — pays no attention to it.'
Since Leeming wrote this, the situation has worsened as signs have continued to proliferate. Much of the reason for this is passing the buck from the highway authority to the driver, to absolve the highway authority from responsibility for its own failings. A modern example is the extensive provision of signs warning of a slippery road ahead, often for several miles. These signs mean that the authority responsible for maintaining the road in a safe condition is aware that the skid resistance is below standard, but rather than spend money to carry out resurfacing it puts up a sign, to shift the burden of blame for any accidents.
 
In his succinct and incisive way, Leeming describes the proper use of signs thus:
'It is surely obvious that the proper use of signs is that they should be clear in themselves, should convey an unmistakable message to the driver, tell him exactly what the trouble is and, finally, that they should never be put up except where there is a real danger that he cannot see for himself. He can then have confidence in them, and take action in that confidence. The warning they should convey is to take such action as a prudent and experienced driver would take of his own accord.'


Vehicle-activated warning signs are helpful provided they are not overused
These are very wise words. A few months ago the Transport Research Laboratory published a report on the effectiveness of vehicle-activated illuminated signs to warn drivers of dangers ahead, such as sharp bends or junctions, or to remind them of the speed limit. The ABD, rightly, welcomed the use of these signs to warn drivers of hazards, rather than punish them with the use of speed cameras. We need to be aware, however, of the danger that these signs, too, could become overused, so that their impact is diluted and drivers grow to ignore them.
 

 
Leeming next turned his attention to the use of propaganda in road safety. He noted that there was a general view in road safety circles that their propaganda saved a lot of lives, but there was actually no proof of that one way or the other. He felt that too much propaganda can have a numbing effect and lose its impact. As an example, he quoted the practice, prevalent in the 1960s, for the media to report the number of people killed in road accidents during bank holiday weekends. Yet people aren't quite as stupid as many in authority would believe: most realise that similar numbers of accidents occur throughout the year.
 
The same applies today when, for instance, we are told by government ministers or police chiefs that they intend "to make speeding as socially unacceptable as drink-driving". This is never going to happen: people understand that a driver's ability is almost certainly impaired if their blood-alcohol level is in excess of the legal maximum; but most people also understand that speed limits are essentially arbitrary and it is patronising to assert that it is always dangerous to exceed them. Leeming also noted that propaganda tends to be selective by, for example, giving the impression that there are no accidents other than those that occur on the road, or that other accidents are of less importance:
'We seldom or never hear anything about the other accidents, twice as numerous. The public conscience need not be roused if Mum has Gran staying with her, and polishes the floor in the house so that Gran falls and dies of the injury. This is not an infrequent event, but it excites no comment.
'But if Mum takes Gran out in the car to visit someone, and skids on a polished surface, and Gran is killed, then this becomes a matter on which our conscience should be roused. Mum is prosecuted for killing by dangerous driving and severely punished.'
As Leeming then pointed out, in the case of a driver losing control on a polished surface, a degree of responsibility lies with the highway authority for failing to make the road safe. But it is easier and less expensive to pass the buck to the motorist — as noted above in the discussion on signs. This brought Leeming to consider the attitude to the driver:
'This leads us to one feature which is common to all the propaganda, in all countries. It attributes the whole blame, and puts the whole responsibility, on the driver. This takes many forms, from insinuation and innuendo down to vitriolic abuse of the type used by Hitler and Goebbels about the Jews. It is quite commonly said that the whole responsibility for accidents rests on the driver and on no one else. All facts which tell against this idea are ruthlessly swept under the carpet.'
You might think that the reference to Hitler and Goebbels is perhaps a bit over the top — but remember that Jon Fuller, representing the South Essex branch of Friends of the Earth, has publicly compared speeding drivers with paedophiles!
 
As an example of the automatic assumption of driver blame, Leeming described a BBC programme on the treatment of road accidents at a particular hospital. Apart from, once again, implying that the hospital never dealt with any other type of accident, an ambulance man who brought in an injured pedestrian was said to have wanted to beat up the 'motorist responsible'! As Leeming said, it had not occurred to the ambulance man or the programme's producers that the pedestrian might possibly have contributed to the accident by stepping out recklessly.
 
Leeming pointed out that abusing motorists is hardly the best way to gain their co-operation, as it is a general trait of human nature to react in a similar way to how one is treated. Also, vague, general messages of the 'take care' variety are of little use — as Leeming has said, most drivers fully intend to be careful but are often lured into making unwitting mistakes by traps in the road layout. He summarised the failings of negative propaganda as follows:
'Abuse of the drivers is the worst possible type of propaganda, even if it bears some resemblance to the truth, which it clearly does not. As Cardinal Newman said: "When we would persuade others, we do not begin by treading on their toes." Yet we tread hard and firmly on the motorist's toes, slap him in the face with a wet fish, and then expect him to co-operate.'
For propaganda to be effective, Leeming said, it had to be positive and should tell people what they need to do and the reasons why, in simple and clear language. Of course, this presupposes that the right instructions are to be given for the right reasons — which is not the case today with 'speed kills'!
 
Leeming bemoaned the fact that positive propaganda, even if it is produced, rarely gets publicised. He gave as an example a leaflet, produced by the Road Research Laboratory (now TRL), describing the effect of slippery surfaces in clear and non-technical language: no one was interested. He also described the lack of adequate guidance given to drivers when double white lines were originally introduced: the official policy seemed to be to let drivers disobey them through ignorance, then punish them for doing so!
 
Leeming described the effects that the negative propaganda towards drivers has on drivers themselves, the public, and those in authority. In the case of drivers, they had become distrustful, with reason, to the extent that even good propaganda no longer had any effect. Leeming suggested that one way to overcome this would be to lay off the driver for a while and concentrate on the responsibilities of other road users — 35 years later, we are still waiting!
 
The effect on public attitudes, Leeming believed, was the greatest source of harm:
'Excellent work is being done by various organisations …in teaching children at schools …but what is the use of this if the children then go home and are taught by their parents or others that their safety is the sole responsibility of the motorist? By such people, for example, as the lady councillor who told my wife that I was murdering the children because I was opposing an unreasonable speed limit …In many cases where parents demand a speed limit "to protect our children" they really mean "to save us the trouble of looking after our children".'
Leeming illustrated this point by describing a television programme about a street in south London, where there had been local agitation for 'something to be done' in order to 'make the road safe for our children'. The programme showed a mother seeing her children off to school; she had watched them from the front door to the gate:
'As soon as they had shut the gate, she turned and went indoors…Her responsibility for them had clearly ended, and some faceless they had taken over. The children were shown rushing across the road, and one was knocked down by a lorry whose driver was unable to avoid her. Then we were shown the usual crowd abusing motorists, the Council, the Ministry, everybody but themselves. Yet these people were only following to its logical conclusion the propaganda that the whole responsibility rests with the driver, because if this is true obviously no one else need take any care.'
The effect of the propaganda on those in authority, Leeming said, was to make it of no importance if ill-considered laws were passed, if sub-standard roads were built, or dangerous junctions were not improved — the driver could always be blamed when things went wrong. How true this is in today's context, with new ways of persecuting drivers dreamt up almost daily and a woeful lack of investment in road improvements.
 
Perhaps the biggest change since Leeming's time is the much more aggressive and sinister way in which drivers are being targeted for blame: the drivers' case is no longer going by default as the result of a lack of understanding or disinterest on the part of government; it is being actively attacked by those with a malign political agenda.
 
The next article will look at the whole issue of traffic law, including fairness, effectiveness, and discrimination against the driver.
 
 

Top7. Road Traffic Law


In compiling Road Accidents: Prevent or punish? Leeming enlisted specialists to write about topics that were outside his own area of knowledge as a traffic engineer. One of these topics is road traffic law, to which a chapter of his book is dedicated. It was written by Professor P J Fitzgerald, who looked at the subject from a lawyer's perspective. While new and updated legislation has been introduced in the 35 years since the chapter was written, his general observations are as true today as they were then.
 
He heads the chapter with the following quote from Burke:
'Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny.'
In Professor Fitzgerald's view, traffic law should pass three tests: it should be clear; it should be fair; and it should be effective. He contends that our present traffic law fails on all three counts! The sheer volume of traffic legislation makes it unclear to the average driver what is and what is not legal. This is compounded by the ambiguity of some statutes, and the conflict between legal and commonsense interpretations. In Professor Fitzgerald's words:
'Law that is unclear is objectionable on many grounds. It confuses the courts, adds to their work and wastes the time of all who have to unravel it. It leaves the citizen uncertain of his duties and obligations, and exposed to the possibility of penal sanctions for unwitting violations — a situation as ridiculous as it is unfair.'
This isn't the only source of unfairness faced by drivers, as he points out:
'Justice demands that the law — and particularly the criminal law — refrains from penalizing conduct "unmeet for punishment", and discriminating against any particular section of the community. Road traffic law offends against both these principles. It seeks to punish behaviour to which attaches little, if any, moral blame; and it is discriminatory, no less by reason of the inescapably random nature of its enforcement than by its denial to the driver of equal treatment by the law.'
As Professor Fitzgerald sees it, unlike ordinary crimes the majority of traffic offences are not deliberate acts by drivers against other people. They mostly fall into three categories: offences of negligence, technical offences, and strict liability offences. Everyone is likely to commit them at some time, unlike other crimes, which is why people generally do not look upon those who have driving convictions in the same way as they do 'real' criminals.
 
Professor Fitzgerald is also critical of claims that those who commit traffic offences are more likely to commit other types of offence — a claim that has been used recently to justify enforcement campaigns against drivers. He points out that the classic study that purported to show such a link only looked at the more serious traffic offences, and its conclusions were heavily affected by the inclusion of the two offences of driving while uninsured and driving while disqualified. In most cases these are deliberate acts of irresponsibility: if these two offences were excluded, the average traffic offender is unlikely to be found to be involved in other criminal activity.
 
The first category of offences committed by drivers — those of negligence — mostly involve charges of dangerous driving or careless driving. While it is possible to commit these offences intentionally, in most cases they are unintentional and result from a lack of care. Carelessness is not treated as a criminal act in any other field of human activity (although it may give rise to civil liability), so why should driving be singled out as a special case?
 
In the case of technical offences committed by drivers, such as speeding, the gulf between legal and moral responsibility is even greater. Professor Fitzgerald points out that rules prohibiting violence against others are essential to the very existence of society, whereas 'quasi-crimes', as he calls them, lack this fundamental quality. Furthermore, crimes such as murder, rape and assault invariably result in a particular person or persons being hurt, whereas quasi-crimes do not harm any identifiable individuals.
 
He does not say, however, that all technical rules are unnecessary, although it is not always essential for them to be enshrined in law. As an example he quotes the rule of the road: in Britain it is by custom rather than law that we drive on the left, yet to disregard this rule would, in most cases, amount at least to careless driving. On the other hand, there would be circumstances in which no offence would be committed. In this example he sees the law as being at its best, combining guidance with flexibility.
 
It is the lack of flexibility in the technical regulations that create quasi-crimes that Professor Fitzgerald finds most objectionable. Such regulations supplement the ordinary rules of prudence with rules of statutory prudence. He explains:
'Whereas regulations prohibiting negligence enforce and underwrite the rule that you must drive safely, these other regulations supersede this flexible rule by laying down what shall count as safe. If a road carries a 30 mile/h speed limit, it is no use arguing that it is safe to drive at 35 mile/h or that public interest does not require the limit. But while this may often make it easier to establish that an offence has been committed, it runs counter to what should surely be a basic principle of traffic law, that "no driver should be placed in jeopardy from the law for doing something that is not in itself dangerous". Detailed regulations should support rules of common sense, not become a substitute for them, or conflict with them.'
How true this is! The majority of drivers instinctively understand it, which is why there is so much resentment today towards the relentless enforcement of increasingly unrealistic speed limits, and the patronising assertions by the road safety establishment that exceeding speed limits is always dangerous. Those in charge, either wilfully or through ignorance, are acting contrary to a basic principle of justice.
 
Professor Fitzgerald is at his most scathing in his views on offences of strict liability, where a driver is automatically guilty if he fails to do something he should, or does something the law prohibits, regardless of whether he does so deliberately, or even knowingly. He gives as an example the legal requirement to stop at a Halt sign: in the first episode in this series, I quoted a case described by Leeming where there was a bad accident record at a crossroads, apparently caused by drivers on the minor road failing to stop at such a sign. The reaction of the police and the local press was to prosecute the offending drivers, but an investigation by Leeming found that it was the poorly sited sign and road markings that prevented drivers from complying with the law. Professor Fitzgerald sums up the iniquities of strict liability:
'What common sense and morality alike object to is a practice whereby the law intervenes and penalizes a man who (a) was not morally to blame, and (b) had no chance to conform to the law's requirements, since the circumstances precluded him from knowledge that he was doing something forbidden by law… What possible justification can there be for punishing this sort of man? He was not trying to break the law: on the contrary, he was trying to conform to it.'
The extra burden of criminal liability placed on drivers, compared with people involved in other activities, amounts to discrimination, argues Professor Fitzgerald. He points out that drivers are the only class of road user to face prosecution if they cause accidents, and other types of accident do not incur criminal sanction at all. In addition, drivers are the only road users subject to compulsory licensing, the requirement to carry third party insurance, and the requirement to stop and report accidents. He is not saying that these requirements are wrong, just that they are discriminatory because they do not apply to all road users equally. He has an interesting viewpoint on the subject of compulsory insurance:
'The justification of the requirement of insurance is that the driver must make sure that any victim of his negligence is adequately compensated. The driver is indulging in a hazardous activity from which he benefits and, so it is said, he must foot the bill of insuring against accidents. But no one can seriously maintain that in 1969 the driver is the only beneficiary. The whole of society benefits nationally from our road traffic communications. Should not society as a whole, then, shoulder the burden, and bear the cost of insurance?'
It is certainly unfashionable in many circles today to acknowledge that road transport benefits the whole of society, although it should be self-evident. However, in the highly unlikely event of any government agreeing to pay the victims of road accidents from public funds, we could be sure to be faced with even more drastic and ill-conceived restrictions on drivers, in the interests of improving 'safety' and reducing costs to the public purse. It is probably better in this case not to pursue Professor Fitzgerald's argument, despite its logic!
 
Another of his arguments about discrimination against the driver is far more powerful and is even more topical today than it was 35 years ago. It is the requirement to give information that may lead to the identification of the driver at the time of an alleged offence. Nowadays, of course, we are mostly concerned about the requirement in the 1988 Road Traffic Act to identify the driver in the case of speed camera offences, but Professor Fitzgerald wrote the following with the 1967 Road Safety Act (which brought us the breathalyser) in mind:
'Apart from the criticism that once again the law is discriminating against the motorist, there are more serious objections. In the first place, the statute is now forcing a man to give evidence against himself and offending against the well-established legal principle of the right to silence — a right which, with all respect to those who argue for its abolition, we should not abandon lightly. Second, the statute compels a man to give specimens of his body against his will — a new departure in our law, and surely one which would qualify as subjecting him to "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" as prohibited by both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights.'
Perhaps it says something about the degree to which we have accepted the gradual erosion of our rights that we give little thought nowadays to the implications set out in the second part of this quote. Will we soon accept the loss of our right to silence as readily?
 
Summing up, Professor Fitzgerald concludes that law that is neither clear nor fair cannot hope to be effective. He points out that traffic law should promote two objectives: to improve traffic flow and to prevent road accidents. But far from improving flow, our current traffic laws, located as they are within the criminal law, are more likely to hinder it, as they consist almost entirely of prohibitions rather than commandments. They are even worse at preventing accidents, since they are designed on the premise that accidents are caused by drivers, who should be punished accordingly.
 
Professor Fitzgerald's suggested solution is that only cases of deliberately dangerous or reckless driving should be dealt with by the criminal law; all other accidents should be the subject of investigations aimed at discovering their causes, not to find evidence to prosecute drivers. He believes that the insight that would be gained about the causes of accidents, if drivers were able to talk openly to investigators without fear of incriminating themselves, would outweigh the cost of allowing poor decisions by drivers to go unpunished. He accepts that many people would find this suggestion fantastic, but he supports it with the following quote from a Professor R M Jackson:
'It is hard to believe that prosecuting more and more people every year is the best way of securing a good-tempered community, that accepts and observes codes of conduct designed for everyone's safety and convenience.'

 

Top8. Doubt & Hunch
The lack of scientific evidence for the claims and assumptions behind many 'road safety' measures.


In the previous article I looked at the contribution in Leeming's book by a professor of law, on the effectiveness — or otherwise — of road traffic legislation in preventing accidents. I now return to Leeming's own views, on what he calls 'doubt and hunch' — the lack of scientific evidence for the claims and assumptions behind many measures that are generally accepted as benefiting road safety.
 
One of Leeming's main criticisms — and the reason he wrote his book — is the assumption by so many people that all accidents are caused by the wilful misdeeds of drivers, leading to the conclusion that they can be prevented by legal controls and penalties. To counter this, he quotes from the 1967 annual report of the American Bureau of Public Roads:
'The belief that a large percentage of accidents is caused by a group of careless or dangerous persons, appears to be untrue. The truth, according to research investigations, is that most drivers perform "as well as can be expected, but face difficult combinations of road traffic situations and vehicle operating requirements".'
Leeming believed that if such opinions were treated seriously they would lead to a new way of thinking about the prevention of accidents. He echoes the view of Professor Fitzgerald (in the previous article) about the need to limit charges of dangerous driving to those rare cases of deliberate recklessness. The majority of people charged with dangerous or careless driving do not set out with that intention. As Leeming says:
'…falling into traps, errors of judgement, carelessness, incompetence, frustration, lack of consideration for others, and so on, are failings common to all human beings, and dealing with them is a very different matter from dealing with wilful recklessness. Some of them can be prevented by altering the road to remove the traps, to direct the incompetent into the right way, or remove the frustration. Penalties are, at best, useless as a remedy for them, and at worst, very harmful.'
The last part of that quote is expanded upon by Leeming in some depth. He maintains that the use of absolute penalties actually causes accidents, by limiting police investigations to establishing whether a driver can be charged with a criminal offence. The fact that the 'offence' might have been committed quite unwittingly, because of a flaw in the road layout, is outside the scope of the investigation, so similar accidents will continue when they could have been prevented — the kind of scenario described in the first article in this series.
 
Then there is the widely held assumption that the threat of legal sanction acts as a deterrent to 'dangerous' driving. But, as Leeming asks, since most dangerous driving is unintentional, how can the law be a deterrent? He also points out that there have been conflicting views over the years on the effectiveness of penal law in deterring 'ordinary' criminal acts, and the general tendency has been for penalties to become lighter — except for drivers, for whom there are becoming more severe. Leeming also makes the point, which should be self-evident, that the greatest deterrent to dangerous or careless driving is the accident itself! Drivers do not enjoy having accidents, so it is doubtful if the added possibility of legal action has any effect. He explains:
'…if most accidents happen to drivers who are honestly doing their best, but that best has failed either through incompetence, or human failing, or a trap in the road conditions, or through the conditions presenting too difficult a problem for the fallible human being, then the deterrent idea may become entirely wrong. To try to deter a man from doing his best does not seem very sound, and to deter a man from driving prudently is raving lunacy.
'In any event, accidents are often all over in a fraction of a second and no one has time to think about the deterrent. On all counts, the value of the deterrent, except in a few cases, becomes very doubtful.'
He then goes on to discuss the value of driving licence suspension as a means of reducing the numbers of accidents. While suspending someone's licence is certainly a penalty, Leeming points out that constant practice is essential for any human activity requiring skill. If someone has caused an accident due to a misjudgement or inexperience, then their skill level is not going to increase while they are prevented from driving. On the contrary, when they do return to the road, what little skill they had would have been eroded by lack of practice! Of course, today it is easier than ever to lose one's licence for a string of technical offences such as speeding, without having been involved in an accident or doing anything dangerous at all.
 
Leeming refers to an example quoted in a previous article, where the US state of Connecticut adopted a strict policy of licence suspension to deter speeding in the 1950s. A huge increase in the number of licence suspensions had no effect on the death rate trend. The idea that suspending a driver's licence will improve his subsequent behaviour is, therefore, no more than a popular belief with no foundation in fact.
 

Aircraft pilots do not suffer the same unfair treatment imposed upon drivers. Photo:Adrian Pingstone
He also compares the way in which drivers are treated with what happens in other modes of transport:
'If a ship's master, or officer, or an engine driver, is found to have been careless, we do not usually stop him practising. He may be 'demoted' and given less responsibility for a time. Some years ago, when an air pilot, who had an accident, and survived it, was dismissed by the airline employing him for alleged error of judgement, public opinion thought that he had been badly treated, and doubted the inquiry. A Commission was even set up to consider the matter of inquiries into air accidents.'
Leeming's view was that disqualification should be abolished, at the very least, for all offences not involved with the control of a vehicle. Ideally, because of the detrimental effect that disqualification has on skill levels, it should be reserved solely for those who have demonstrated that they are incapable of driving, such as alcoholics or drug addicts, and then it should be for life. As he says:
'Any court which suspends a licence for a limited time, a year or so, takes on itself a very heavy responsibility. To suspend a licence for long periods such as seven years, as is sometimes done, is, I think, in every way as criminal as dangerous driving.'
As well as licence suspension, Leeming also questioned the value of something very dear to the ABD — driver training. He quoted a study in the United States that failed to show any correlation between death rates and the standard of driver training in individual states. He was also sceptical about claims that highly trained police drivers have significantly lower accident rates than the general public, because of doubts about the comparability of accident data between the two groups. Of course, since Leeming wrote his book, there has been further evidence that driver training can lead to reduced accident involvement — many fleet operators can vouch for it, for example. But, as we well know, there are many different types of driver 'training' and we cannot automatically assume that they are all of equal value. Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Leeming is that we should not fall into the trap of accepting any assertion, however intuitively obvious it might seem, without hard evidence to support it.
 
Leeming also expands on Professor Fitzgerald's view that the law discriminates against drivers. He notes that many accidents involving pedestrians are caused by recklessness or carelessness on the part of the pedestrian — a fact confirmed by recent accident studies in the West Midlands and by the Transport Research Laboratory. Although rare, there have also been instances of cyclists causing fatal injuries to pedestrians, but the cyclists are never prosecuted. So the human failings of pedestrians and cyclists are not punished by the legal system, while those of drivers are. As Leeming points out, there is no general offence of killing by dangerous conduct, only one of killing by dangerous driving. Furthermore, the 'justice' system is biased against the driver from the start:
'There is every reason to think that in many courts a motorist is already convicted and sentenced before the hearing. He is presumed to be automatically guilty. I have seen an instance of this when a Judge had clearly made up his mind the defendant was guilty, and made no secret of the fact. The Bow Group panel, who wrote the pamphlet The Scales of Justice, said that this was a general practice in the courts. Coming from a panel of practising lawyers, a profession not given to self-criticism, and from men of a political bent inclining them to favour existing institutions, this is a very strong indictment indeed.'
Thirty-five years on, the situation has become even worse, with drivers denied fundamental rights such as the right to silence and the right not to incriminate themselves. Not only is this anti-driver bias in the legal system plainly unfair, it also reduces any deterrent effect that might have existed, as Leeming explains:
'…when X and Y have an accident together, if left alone, each may have a lurking feeling at the back of his mind that he was at fault to some extent, and must mend his ways. It is rare for one participant to be wholly at fault. But the Police then prosecute X, and use Y as prosecution witness. Y will feel that he was wholly in the right, and any possible deterrent effect of the accident is destroyed for him. X knows that Y was to some extent at fault, and feels a grievance that he was the only one prosecuted, and may come to feel that he was badly treated and that Y was the real culprit, so the deterrent effect is at least partly reduced for him, and the prosecution has done harm all round.'
As Leeming has mentioned before, the adverse effects of prosecution do not end there, as the drivers involved become defensive and unwilling to talk to investigators, so the opportunity to discover the real reasons for the accident are lost. Even when evidence of a defect in the road layout is available, it is often ignored in the blinkered desire to obtain a conviction against a driver.
 
Leeming quotes a case of a driver whose passenger was killed when he skidded on a bend in wet weather and hit an oncoming car. A couple of road workers, who arrived shortly afterwards and helped the casualties, found that the road surface was almost too slippery to stand up on. By the time the police arrived, the road had dried, so they ignored the claims of the road workers. The driver was charged with causing death by dangerous driving, but was acquitted by the jury, even though the road surface condition was not mentioned in court. As Leeming says, no doubt the judge considered it a perverse verdict!
 
Leeming's criticisms of motoring law are quite damning, and are summarised in the following quote:
'If I was commissioned to produce a code of law designed to cause accidents without its purpose being too blatantly obvious, I do not feel that I could very much 'improve' on the present code, and would not suggest much modification of it.'
It could be argued that developments in the intervening thirty-five years have 'improved' significantly the ability of motoring law to cause accidents, especially since the introduction of speed cameras and the sledgehammer approach to enforcing increasingly unrealistic and arbitrary speed limits.
 
In the next and final part of this series, I will look at Leeming's suggestions for how a new approach is required if we really want to reduce road accidents.
 
 

Top9. Food for Thought


In previous articles in this series I have described Leeming's views on the detrimental effects of the current culture of blaming and punishing drivers involved in accidents, rather than trying to find out why accidents occur. In this, the final article, I will describe the changes that Leeming believed are necessary if we are really serious about reducing road casualties. Some of his views are radical and controversial, perhaps even more so now than when they were written, but they certainly provide food for thought.
 
Leeming begins by trying to estimate how many deaths could be saved on the roads, based on the measures found to give statistically significant casualty reductions. The figure he came up with was 3,250, made up as follows: modernisation of the rural main and trunk roads (1,000); additional bypasses and motorways (250); pedestrian control (500); street lighting improved to modern standards (500); and miscellaneous, including seat belts, anti-lock brakes, reductions in numbers of two-wheeled vehicles, etc (1,000). At the time he was writing, there were some 7,000 fatalities annually, so he believed that almost half could be prevented, the majority by better roads and vehicle technology. Today, there are around 3,500 road deaths per year, about half the level of the late 1960s, and that figure has stayed much the same for the last ten years. Leeming was quite clear that it would be impossible to prevent all accidents:
'It is, of course, quite unthinkable that we could eliminate all accidents. There is bound to be a hard core of them due to such things as wilful recklessness — on the part of all road-users — human error, mechanical failure, suicide, and so on... There must be an irreducible minimum below which we cannot reduce the number of deaths, though it is quite impossible to estimate that number. But, basing it on present figures of population and number of motor vehicles, we might guess that it should be less than half the present number.'
So, with Leeming's fifty per cent reduction having been achieved, and no significant change in the last ten years, has the minimum level been reached? Almost certainly not. Although there was considerable investment in the main road network between the 1960s and the early 1990s, there are still areas of the country where trunk routes consist primarily of single carriageways, which are becoming increasingly congested as traffic levels continue to rise. Further improvements to the strategic network would undoubtedly bring rewards in terms of accident reduction, as well as congestion relief.
 
Furthermore, Leeming could not have foreseen the enormous improvements made in vehicle design, nor the advances in medical treatment that have kept many accident victims alive, who would previously have died. The levelling off in road deaths since the early 1990s coincides with an almost total cessation of road building, in the misguided belief that by not building new roads, traffic levels would stop rising. At the same time, the much cheaper — and equally misguided — strategy of massively increasing speed limit enforcement through cameras was introduced.
 
Leeming castigated the then Minister of Transport, Barbara Castle, for blaming motor manufacturers for lack of attention to safety features in their cars, while refusing to accept that the roads for which she was responsible played any part in accidents. He also condemned the imposition of the national 70mph speed limit, following a series of accidents in fog, when there could be no logical connection between the speed limit and those accidents. He makes his point forcefully:
'Mrs Castle said — with former Ministers — that you cannot stop all accidents by road improvements, though, as far as I know, no one has ever said that you can. Yet at the same time, she continued with speed limits, and it is certainly true that you cannot stop all accidents by speed limits. It is even doubtful whether you can stop any at all with them. Yet if any evidence could be considered as conclusive, it is that road improvements do materially reduce accidents, while the evidence for speed limits, which she calls conclusive, is shadowy in the extreme.'
Leeming referred to Mrs Castle's call for a 'change of heart' on the part of road users, but criticised it for being too restricted. He had a more radical change in mind:
'The change of heart must be on the part of everyone, and it must start with Ministers and legislators. When they have made their change of heart, stopped giving all their attention to the punishment of motorists, and turned it to stopping accidents, then the rest of us will change our hearts too.'
Part of the change of heart, said Leeming, had to be recognising the need for research into the factors associated with road accidents. It was a complex subject on which research was scrappy and un-co-ordinated, but the official approach was one of over-simplification:
'It must be part of the change of heart to realize that it is criminal irresponsibility to introduce any measure without the most careful and anxious study of its possible effects. It has hitherto been done on the hunches of eminent men who are not qualified by knowledge and always with the idea at the back of the legislative mind — admittedly possibly quite subconsciously — that it does not matter what we do, if it goes wrong we can blame it on the motorist.'
How depressing it is that those words are even more applicable today, 35 years on, when we can see the failure of the simplistic 'Speed Kills' policy in rising death rates (up another two per cent in 2003), with no hint of official recognition that the policy could be flawed. On the contrary, we are told that we need more of the same failed medicine. Such research as is carried out seems to be directed at providing false evidence to show that this failure is actually a success!
 
One of the main areas where change was needed, said Leeming, was in the law. In previous articles in this series I have shown how Leeming believed that the present concentration on apportioning blame to drivers hindered investigation into the true causes of accidents, as drivers are not willing to admit mistakes that would render them liable to prosecution. The malign effect of the law does not end there, though — by concentrating on drivers, it sends a signal to other road users that their safety is someone else's responsibility. Children who grow up with this attitude in the early part of their road user careers might carry it with them when they start driving, so they always blame others when they are themselves at fault.
 
The purpose of accident investigation, said Leeming, should be to find out what went wrong, rather than who could be blamed. The law should be changed to help, not hinder, research into accident causation, and he went further:
'Any practices or regulations which themselves help to cause accidents must also be abolished, so all absolute penalties must go, including those concerned with speed limits, stop signs, and double white lines. These things themselves need not be abolished, they can be made advisory. With them must also go the fixed blood-alcohol proportion. It also, of course, means that the inquiry into accidents must have the prevention of accidents, and not the prosecution of motorists, as its sole and only aim. 'It will be objected that this means trusting the motorist — which indeed it does — and that he cannot be trusted. But to say this is to condemn the whole nation. The motorist is, in general, drawn from the most trustworthy section of the people. We trust him to run the country, so why not trust him to drive reasonably?'
Leeming's proposals here are undoubtedly radical, and might be a little hard for even some ABD members to accept fully, but if they are considered carefully from first principles, setting aside any pre-conceived ideas, they make a lot of sense.
 

Leeming proposed the creation of a 'Traffic Corps'
In order to achieve the aim of using accident investigations to prevent accidents, not to punish motorists, Leeming proposed the setting up of a 'Traffic Corps'. This would have to be completely independent of the police, the courts, the highway authorities and the government, and would carry out scientific research based on traffic engineering and statistical methods. Leeming also suggested that the Road Research Laboratory (now TRL) should come under the Corps, as its take over by the Ministry of Transport at that time had undermined its reputation for objectivity. Although TRL is now a commercial body, one of its chief clients is the Department for Transport, which pays TRL to produce the reports it commissions — so Leeming's concern is just as valid today.
 
Leeming thought that the Traffic Corps could perhaps be a public corporation, devoted to the control of traffic and the investigation of accidents. It would have to be manned partly by trained traffic engineers, and certainly headed by one, although the rank-and-file could be recruited partly from retired police officers, for their skills in collecting evidence. Leeming argued that, if the purpose of traffic control was to keep traffic moving with the minimum inconvenience, delay and danger, then it should be a traffic engineering and not a police matter.
 
By removing the police from their current roles in traffic control and accident investigation, Leeming recognised that there might be concern about the enforcement of discipline on the roads:
'I am not advocating a free-for-all on the roads, with no way of enforcement of discipline. But there is a strong sense of discipline in our people, and I merely suggest using this, instead of, as at present, running against it. Much of the bad discipline which exists…is itself largely due to the present attitude.'
Dealing with wilfully reckless road users would still have to be a police matter, but for the majority of accidents the Traffic Corps would carry out an investigation and, if appropriate, its findings could be used by an impartial body, such as a panel of arbitrators, to apportion damages against anyone found to have been negligent. This would include not just drivers, but could extend to pedestrians, cyclists, the parents of a child, the owner of an animal, a vehicle manufacturer, or even the highway authority. Furthermore, Leeming thought that at least part of any damages should be paid by the person concerned out of their own pocket, not from insurance, and this would help to instil a greater sense of responsibility in all road users and those who maintain the roads, not just drivers. Leeming acknowledged the potential problem of collecting payment, especially from non-drivers, and he was writing at a time when society was much less litigious than it is now. Nevertheless, the principle is a good one, as it would create a much fairer system than currently exists.
 
The last chapter in Leeming's book is entitled 'Remedy — Or Revenge?' and the following passage sums up all that is wrong with the current approach:
'We are insane on the subject of road accidents, and as a result of that insanity our whole approach is fundamentally wrong, and we are trying to solve the wrong problem. Our law and propaganda are not really based on the wish to stop accidents, but are solely concerned with revenge on the driver, without respect to whether he is guilty. It is thought that this is all we need do to stop accidents. But it is not, it can only cause more.'
Although fatalities have fallen significantly since Leeming wrote those words, we can safely say that they are still higher than they could be if it were not for present policies. The ABD has calculated that, had the downward trend in fatalities prior to 1994 continued, the number of people being killed each year on the roads today could be at least a thousand fewer than the current 3,500.
 
If Leeming's ideas were ever put into practice, how great an improvement in casualty figures could we see? The answer is, we don't know — and with the attitudes towards drivers currently prevalent in national and local government, and in the police, we may never find out.
 
 

Top Postscript


Following publication of these articles on the ABD's website, John Leeming's son, David, made contact with the ABD to let us know that he still had some of the papers related to his father's researches. It had been his father's intention that, on his death, they should be passed to a professor in Birmingham, but in the event the professor declined them. Consequently, David Leeming asked whether the ABD would like to have them.
 
This generous offer was gratefully accepted, with an assurance to Mr Leeming that the papers would be found a secure long-term home once the ABD had finished with them. The papers comprised five folders: two containing John Leeming's studies of international accident rates, two containing his analyses of before-and-after studies, and one containing copies of articles and papers of his that were published.
 
After examining the contents of the folders and copying those of greatest interest, the ABD offered the papers to the National Motoring Museum at Beaulieu. The offer was accepted and, on 20 October 2005, the papers were delivered to the Motoring Library, where they will be catalogued and stored for the benefit of future researchers and historians.
 
The ABD is proud to have played a part in preserving for posterity the work of such an eminent road safety researcher.
 
 
 
 
Road Accidents: Prevent or Punish? by J.J.Leeming was published in 1969 by Cassell.
ISBN: 0-304-93213-2

the abd has arranged to have j.j.leeming's book reprinted
buy a copy from the abd shop

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