'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.'
'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.
'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.
'…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!
'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.
'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 accident||1863-1870||1891-1900||1931-1938||1963|
Death by drowning was far more common when canals were Britain's main transport routes.
'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.'
Would changing sides increase accidents?
'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: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!
'These are placed in descending order of importance. These six accounted for 70% of the variations in the rate.'
- (a) The percentage of the total state highway mileage that is rural.
- (b) The per cent increase in motor vehicle registration.
- (c) The extent of motor vehicle inspection.
- (d) The percentage of state-administered highway that is surfaced.
- (e) The average yearly minimum temperature.
- (f) The income per capita.
'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.
New motorways have greatly reduced accidents
One of the few remaining sections of 3 lane road
'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.
'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.
'…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.
'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.
'No speed limit — anywhere, any time, any place — has ever increased the number of accidents.' Adam Raphael, the Guardian, June 1966.Leeming refers to these quotes when he starts to review the evidence concerning the effectiveness of speed limits:
'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.
'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%.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 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.'
'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.'
'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.
'…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!"
'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.
'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.'
'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.
'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.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:
'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.'
'…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.
'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!"
'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.
'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.
'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
'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.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:
'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.'
'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!
'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'!
'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.
'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.
'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.
'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!
'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?
'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.'
'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.
'…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.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.
'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.'
Aircraft pilots do not suffer the same unfair treatment imposed upon drivers. Photo:Adrian Pingstone
'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.
'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.
'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.
'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.
'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!
'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'
'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.
'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.
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