More balanced policies are required
In order to understand why road safety policies need to change, we first need to review how current policies have evolved, what is wrong with them, and then explain how they should be changed.
History. Britain has one of the best road safety records in the world and, along with other developed countries, accident rates have been falling for decades. This welcome trend in casualty reduction has traditionally been associated with the ‘Three Es’ of Engineering, Education and Enforcement.
Engineering covers both better roads and safer vehicles. Motorways and dual carriageways have much lower accident rates than other rural roads or those in urban areas. Newer vehicles have improved primary safety (in avoiding accidents) and secondary safety (mitigating injuries in those accidents that do occur). The driving test has been made more rigorous over the years, though the ABD believes the driver training process needs further improvement if it is to produce drivers with the beliefs and attitudes that lead to safe behaviour. Enforcement has in the past been carried out by trained police traffic officers, who have used their discretion and common sense in deciding whether an errant driver should be prosecuted or given a warning.
Over the past twenty years the balance within the Three Es has changed. In the recession of the early 1990s the government cut spending on the road network, with many improvement schemes cancelled or postponed. Realising the detrimental effect on road safety that would result, the government looked for an alternative and relatively cheap way of being seen to be serious about reducing accidents. The result was the authorisation of speed (and red light) cameras, the first of which were installed in 1992.
The sites of the first cameras were selected after proper analyses of the accidents that had occurred, but local authorities quickly began to see cameras as the first choice ‘solution’ to any accident problem, regardless of the actual causes of those accidents. As road safety policy thus began to shift towards prioritising the enforcement of speed limits, with more drivers being caught speeding, the government needed some evidence to justify its policy. The Transport Research Laboratory duly published a report in 1994 claiming that a 1 mph reduction in average speed leads to a fall in accidents of 5%. The ABD has analysed the methodology of this report and found many serious flaws. Despite this, the report’s findings have been quoted many times and are used to justify not only much greater speed limit enforcement with cameras, but also wholesale speed limit reductions.
In 2001 the government authorised national adoption of the ‘cost recovery’ scheme, under which the installation and operation of speed cameras was financed from the fines paid by drivers. This led to an explosion in the number of cameras and speeding penalties, with up to three million drivers prosecuted per year. The controversy that ensued was followed by the Transport Research Laboratory producing new reports seeking to confirm and refine its findings from 1994, but once again the ABD has discovered serious flaws in the methodology and assumptions.
The cost recovery scheme led to the creation of ‘safety camera partnerships’, which tried to justify their existence by making extravagant claims for the effectiveness of speed cameras in reducing accidents. At the same time as cameras were proliferating, police traffic patrols were being cut drastically. In 2007 the government belatedly realised that the cost recovery scheme was encouraging empire building and creating distorted priorities, so it was scrapped. The camera partnerships already established were still able, however, to obtain funding for their operations from the government. In addition, new guidance on the setting of speed limits encouraged local authorities to reduce their speed limits still further.
Although the government has stopped direct funding of speed cameras, some camera partnerships are now financing their operations from the fees paid by drivers to attend speed awareness courses, as an alternative to prosecution. The criteria for offering these courses have been relaxed to obtain more income for the partnerships. Whether it is legal to waive prosecution in exchange for payment of a course fee, for an offence that would otherwise have attracted a penalty and points on a driver’s licence, is open to question.
Analysis. Enforcement, particularly of speed limits, has become the dominant feature of road safety policy. Furthermore, most of that enforcement is now automated through speed cameras rather than by trained traffic police officers, with rigid enforcement thresholds replacing discretion and common sense. The result has been a huge increase in the number of drivers prosecuted for exceeding speed limits, mostly in circumstances where no danger has been caused.
In addition, the use of police waivers and diversion of drivers to “speed awareness” courses has created a whole industry driven by financial motives when there is no hard evidence that these courses improve road safety. See the ABD’s AMPOW campaign here for more information: http://www.speed-awareness.org
There is no evidence that this massive increase in speed limit enforcement has led to an improvement in casualty trends. Indeed, the opposite has occurred, as the rate at which fatalities fell from the mid 1990s to 2007 was the poorest for decades and it has flat-lined since 2011. While the main reason for this reduction may have been the strong economic growth during that period, it certainly does not demonstrate any benefit from the increased enforcement.
The reason that speed limit enforcement has been so ineffective is that it is focusing on the wrong issue. Inappropriate speed for the prevailing road, traffic and weather conditions can certainly be a factor in accidents, but this speed may be either above or below the speed limit. Exceeding a speed limit, by itself, is not inherently dangerous, nor is driving below the speed limit a guarantee that an accident cannot occur. Being able to adjust speed according to changing conditions is one of the most important skills a driver needs to acquire to be safe on the road. This skill must not be undermined by attempting to micromanage drivers with inflexible and often arbitrary speed limits.
Experienced drivers adjust their speed according to the varying frequency of hazards they can see ahead of and around them. They speed up as the hazard density falls and slow down as it increases. Indeed, the roads with the lowest hazard density – motorways – have the highest speeds but the lowest accident rates. Conversely, roads with the highest hazard density – in town centres – have the lowest speeds but the highest accident rates.
Speed limits have a role to play in road safety, but it is much more limited than most people believe. If set correctly, speed limits can guide inexperienced drivers and confirm the judgement of the experienced, responsible majority that their speed choice is correct.
This leads to a high level of compliance, smooth traffic flow and minimum accident risk. If set too low, however, the speed limit will conflict with drivers’ assessment of appropriate speed, leading to non-compliance, driver frustration and increased risk of accidents. Many speed cameras are sited where the speed limit is unnecessarily low, resulting in safe drivers being prosecuted needlessly.
Leaving aside drink or drug driving, and other criminal activity, if a driver has an accident due to inappropriate speed it is because either they did not spot a potentially hazardous situation in time or did not react correctly to it by slowing down. In some cases this will be down to inexperience, but more often it is due to lack of attention. The excess speed is a symptom, therefore, of one of those underlying failures, so the remedy needs to address these fundamental causes. Focusing on speed itself is analogous to a doctor prescribing a pain killer to a patient instead of investigating the cause of the pain!
Solutions. Most accidents are the result of human error on the part of one or more road users (including cyclists and pedestrians, as well as drivers). Many of those errors are due to people not giving sufficient attention to the task in hand when using the roads. Sources of distraction are not just the obvious external ones like using a mobile phone, but include the internal distraction of allowing one’s mind to wander and think about other things. The resulting ‘auto pilot’ state can lead to dramatically increased reaction and response times if something unusual occurs.
Road safety policy needs, therefore, to focus much more on road user attention. This is essentially an education and training issue. Correct use of the roads needs to be taught at the earliest possible age, and driver training should begin before the age at which a driving licence can be obtained. The focus of this training should be on instilling the correct beliefs and attitudes that lead to safe behaviour. While learning the physical skills of driving is important, it is a driver’s thought processes that will ultimately determine whether he or she is safe behind the wheel.
Automated speed limit enforcement needs to be replaced with a return to road traffic policing, focusing on the issues that really matter, such as drivers showing signs of inattention or poor judgement. Speed awareness courses should be replaced with driver improvement courses, to tackle the root causes of poor driving. Where existing speed cameras are sited to slow drivers in advance of a hazard such as a junction or bend, they should be replaced with vehicle-activated signs that show why drivers need to slow down. Speed limit setting should revert to the method advocated prior to 2006, which leads to speed limits respected by the majority of drivers.
These proposals will necessitate a fundamental change in the government’s approach to road safety. Current policies avoid tackling the important issues and instead take the soft option of making important that which is easily measured – speed. If we are to make any real improvements in casualty reduction – and stop the needless criminalization of safe drivers – it is a change that must be made.
Road safety policies need to be changed to become more effective, and reduce the needless harassment of drivers.