Road safety policy in the United Kingdom
Dr Richard North
Despite this, many of the proposals should be welcomed but, in targeting speeding, the government is running the risk of casting the net too wide, criminalising large numbers of ordinary motorists. Its measures are characterised by their extraordinary negativity, which will alienate the public and may ultimately prove counter-productive.
In this paper, therefore, reasoned alternatives are explored, all of which in combination could achieve the results desired without the unreasonable restrictions. These include:
Every reasonable person wants effective road safety measures, but for them to be effective, they need the support and acceptance of the public. People do not respond to being hectored, bullied and unduly penalised. The “carrot” as well as the “stick” must be employed.
Prime Minister Tony Blair has given this issue his personal attention, recording that he had “received countless letters from parent, brothers, sisters, friends of those killed and injured on our roads”. He went on:
“Every one tells of a family devastated, lives blighted, of pain, sorrow and anger and the waste of it. And every one is painful to read”02promising to take action with a strategy which "will focus especially on speed".
That strategy was unveiled in March 2000, setting 10-year targets for increasing road safety. In comparison with averages for 1994-8, it aims to achieve a 40 percent reduction in the number of people killed or seriously injured, a 50 percent reduction in the number of children killed or seriously injured and a ten percent reduction in the slight casualty rate03.
Then, in December 2000, the government published a consultation paper on road traffic penalties04, accompanied by a press release entitled: “Government drive to save lives with crackdown on serious motoring crimes”05. Motorists who killed and repeat serious offenders would face “tougher penalties”. There would also be a “crackdown” on drink-driving, including new, tougher penalties for very drunk drivers.
Days before the publication of the paper, the Observer newspaper hailed the government’s initiative with the headline: “Drivers who kill face jail for 10 years”06, positioning it as an attempt by the government to “defuse public anger at lenient sentences for drivers who break the law”. “This is not anti-motorist, it is anti-dangerous motorist”, a “highly placed government source” said. “We want to hit the dangerous motorist, and hit them (sic) hard”.
But, despite the rhetoric, speeding made up the category of offences for which the most substantial changes were proposed.
Recognising that speeding fines have a limited effect, there was to be an overhaul of the penalty point system “to focus drivers’ minds on the threat of disqualification”. Measures included “long-life” points for serious offences and a two-tier fixed penalty system. Under this system, instead of a minimum of three points being imposed for a single offence, with the driving license being suspended under the “totting up” procedure once 12 points had been reached, either five or 12 points would be imposed, depending on the severity of the offence. Licenses would be suspended when 20 points were reached. Disqualification could thus occur after two offences.
A range of “modern” penalties would also be introduced, including disqualification and vehicle forfeiture for short periods — with vehicles being clamped to prevent their use. Additionally, police enforcement was to be stepped up through the operation of “safety enforcement cameras” under a self-financing arrangement. The police would be allowed to keep the proceeds of the fines their cameras generated.
Nevertheless, the government sought to claim it was introducing a “carrot and stick” policy, making provision for drivers to remit penalty points or a disqualification period by agreeing to submit to retraining — at their own expense.
In seeking to deal with “drivers who kill”, there is clearly a need for action — one can scarcely believe the degree of criminal recklessness exhibited by some drivers. Take, for instance, Peter McLean, 28, a Sunderland man with 11 convictions for driving while disqualified, three for reckless driving, two for dangerous driving and one for aggravated vehicle taking. Three days after Christmas, 1998, having rowed with his girlfriend and spent the afternoon drinking spirits, McLean got behind the wheel of a Ford Escort he had bought for £500 the previous week. With a plaster cast on his broken leg, he then attempted to overtake a cyclist on the inside, mounting the kerb while so doing, running down and killing the cyclist, Mr John Bartley, 6207.
In this case, McLean was jailed for seven-and-a-half years, but not so Philip Taylor, a garage owner from Yarm, near Stockton-on-Tees who killed three women, two of them Sunday-school teachers travelling with him, in a high speed crash. Travelling “substantially” over the speed limit in his Nissan 200X turbo, he had careered over a humpback bridge and collided with an oncoming Vauxhall Nova before hitting a lamppost, killing his two passengers and the women driver of the Nova. Taylor was fined a mere £1,500 plus £172 costs, and banned from driving for six months.
There have been innumerable other cases reported of drivers having caused death and serious injury, only to walk away with derisory penalties. Margaret Highton, of Skelmersdale, Lancashire, is one of those who find this objectionable. She became a campaigner for tougher sentences after her granddaughter, Leonie, died aged three in a road accident in 1994 as she went to buy sweets with her brother. The driver responsible for Leonie’s death was fined £270 and given eight penalty points on his license. He was not insured, was charged only with minor offences and pleaded guilty without having to appear in court08.
Nevertheless, there is an additional dimension to the issue, typified by the experience of Mr Craig Butler. In mid-June 2000, he was thrown from his Laverda 750S motorbike into a hedgerow as he was overtaking a car, the driver of which had decided to overtake another car. He sustained a broken pelvis in three places, four dislocated vertebrae, a broken arm, two broken fingers and a couple of big scars due to internal injuries. He was in hospital for five weeks. After five-and-a-half months of investigations, the police charged the driver with driving without due care and attention. He was fined £180 plus £60 costs and given five points.
But Mr Butler had a specific point to make about enforcement. A month previously, he had been caught doing 52mph in a 30mph zone and was fined £180 plus £60 costs. The area in which he had been caught was not built-up and it had been extremely quiet at the time. Surely, he asked, the actions of the car driver were much, much worse09. The point made will undoubtedly resonate with many motorists, not least this author who, in the same week that a female police driver following a suspected stolen car was acquitted for dangerous driving after running down and killing a pedestrian while driving at over 60mph in a posted 30mph zone, was fined £350 plus £100 costs for driving at 94mph on a lightly trafficked motorway.
The central dilemma
Therein lies the central dilemma for any government that wishes to tackle road safety issues. It must address the rightful concerns of those people who have suffered grievously from bad drivers and outright criminals, while not being seen as “anti-motorist”. To do so, it must deal with dangerous drivers without subjecting the generally law-abiding motorist to a barrage of penalties which have little relation to the severity of the offences committed and which do little to address the real problems of road safety.
The Daily Telegraph encapsulated this dilemma in its editorial commenting on the government’s proposals, asking: “Why is Labour still, apparently, so determined to persecute the motorist?”10. It went on:
“Naturally, the Home Office minister, Charles Clarke, was at pains to deny that this latest proposal, and others, to make it easier to disqualify speeders, had anything to do with being anti-motorist. They were, he maintained, just anti-dangerous motorist. In fact we have some of the safest roads in Europe, but speeding can be a problem, which is why the police have plenty of powers (and speed cameras) to deal with it. At the same time, however, the government resolutely refuses to consider whether some old speed limits are as appropriate as when they were set, often decades ago. This is particularly true of the almost universally ignored 70mph limit on motorways”.It would be possible to see in the Observer and the Telegraph representations of the extremes of view, one treating the driver as a killer to be curbed and the other seeing curbs as “anti-motorist”. However, the central issue is actually one that was not addressed by the media.
The issue is simply that, of all the options available to the government — and other agencies — for achieving safer roads, the main tools chosen have been increased penalties and more Draconian enforcement. Allied to these is the government’s intention to emphasise speed reduction as a means of achieving its casualty reduction targets, singling out speeding offences for the most substantial changes in the enforcement regime.
That is the theme addressed in this paper. It is not about speeding or whether action should be taken to improve safety — of course it should. What is questioned is whether the emphasis on increased penalties and enforcement, and the particular emphasis on speed reduction, is the right way to achieve this aim. An evaluation is conducted of the government’s proposed strategy to determine whether the right tools have been chosen, and alternative strategies are explored.
Crucially, also, the TRL found that accidents increased with the spread of speeds. Its researchers found that as the variation between the slowest and fastest vehicles increased, so did the number of casualties. From their data, they calculated that, if the proportion of speeders doubled, accidents would go up by 10 percent. If their average speed went up by one mph, and all else was held constant, accidents would increase by 19 percent. Thus, they reasoned, curbing the fastest drivers could have a significant effect on accident rates.
What was particularly significant about the TRL research, however, was an important omission — which was by no means highlighted in government publications. The studies did not extend to more minor urban or rural roads, to dual-carriageways nor, crucially, motorways. Work was confined to single carriageway roads in urban and rural areas and the accidents assessed included those affecting pedestrians and cyclists, neither of which groups are permitted on motorways.
Also significant were the findings relating to reduction in accident frequency relative to the mean speeds of vehicles. The most dramatic increases were observed on congested roads in towns, where the speeds observed ranged from under 20mph to just under 25mph. Where speeds increased on different roads, the rate of increase in accident frequency actually reduced, the lowest rate of increase being observed on outer suburban fast roads, with mean speeds recorded at between 30 and 35mph. Essentially, accident rate increases least with increases in speed on the faster roads.
Thus, while the TRL is confident that, as a general rule, a speed reduction of one mile per hour could lead to a reduction in accident frequency of five percent, it concedes that this relationship holds only for the range of road types and traffic conditions covered by the data included in the analysis. In particular, the researchers noted that the effect on accidents of each 1 mile/hr reduction in average speed could not reasonably be extended outside the range of speed reductions observed in the various studies. In other words, data gathered on congested, low-speed urban roads cannot be applied to high-speed motorways.
This caveat is of special importance when relative accident rates are considered. Urban areas — where speeds are lowest — account for 70 percent of all injury accidents, with more than 50 per cent of deaths and injuries occurring on main roads. In rural areas, about 20 percent of injury accidents occur on single lane country roads. On the other hand, the motorway network, where speeds are highest, sees only four percent of total road injuries, three percent of the killed and seriously injured and five percent of fatal casualties, despite taking nearly 15 percent of traffic volume12.
Even on German autobahns, where there are no general speed limits, fatalities are disproportionately low, accounting for 12 percent of the total (911 of 7,749 in 1999) despite these roads taking 37 percent of traffic volume13.
Thus, the TRL argues that higher levels of accident reduction are most likely to be achieved on residential roads and on more highly congested urban roads, where the variability of speeds is considerable.
A failure to target
Should speed reduction in critical areas have been the general focus of government proposals, it is likely that there would be little objection to the measures outlined in its consultation document. But what the government fails to do is target the different types of speeding in different locations. Stepping up of enforcement appears to apply on all classes on roads, motorways included, where the 70mph limit is to remain. The spectre of roadside cameras on motorways, being used to fund police activities, is difficult to dispel.
Supporting its stance on motorways, the government cites one paper on US experience14 (Farmer, et al) which, it claims, provides “convincing evidence” that where some freeway speed limits have been raised and vehicle speeds increased there have been more casualties. It then asserts:
“It is not certain what the effect would be here, but it is at least likely to be the same, especially if motorists were to break the new speed limit by much. Any rise in the speed of the faster vehicles would increases the differential between them and the slowest (HGVs mostly)15.There is some reason to suspect that the government is being highly selective in its choice of supporting material as the paper cited was sponsored by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an active lobbyist for speed controls. And not only is there is other “convincing evidence” which completely contradicts the paper cited, but also there were serious methodological flaws in the study upon which the government relied.
For instance, while Farmer et al “found” that fatalities (per mile driven) had increased 15 percent in 24 US states that had increased speed limits, the study examined only a sample of states which had raised speed limits rather than a sample of all states with higher speed limits. When the data were re-evaluated to correct for this omission, the increase was found to be 1.5 percent (which is not statistically significant). What is more, the fatality rate actually fell in states with the higher speed limits (70mph and above).
Even then, the role of speed in the differences in fatality rates is uncertain. When the data for all the 33 states that had increased their speed limits were compared with the data from the 17 states which had not, it was found that those states which had raised the limit had death rates higher than the national average even before they had raised their limits16.
A separate study17 found that in the states that increased the speed limit, absolute fatality rates fell by 3.4 percent, compared with the 5.1 percent states that did not. Thus, the “increase” in fatality rates (per mile driven) reported by Farmer et al was in fact a reduction, in that no absolute increase in casualties was observed.
The Farmer study, in fact, is out on its own. Even as early as 1987, when the federal government allowed states to raise speed limits on portions of their interstate highways, Pant et al18 found that fatal accident rates on the rural interstate highways posted at 55mph had not significantly changed after the implementation of a 65mph limit.
Work for the US Department of Transportation found that posting lower speed limits did not decrease drivers’ speeds. It also found that an increase in the speed limit did not create a corresponding increase in vehicle speeds. Furthermore, at sites where speed limits were raised, there was a small decrease in the number of very high-speed drivers19.
This seems entirely in accord with earlier findings that, where drivers do not accept speed limits, a number ignore them completely. But where the speed limits are realistic, more drivers are inclined to abide by them. Thus, the same Department of Transportation study discovered that:
“…the majority of motorists do not alter their speed to conform with speed limits they perceive as unreasonable for prevailing conditions… (but) when compliance improved after speed limits were raised, accidents tended to decrease”20.Lave & Elias21 speculated that the reason fatalities did not increase when higher speed limits were introduced was because the new law caused a decrease in speed variance. The law-abiding drivers caught up with the speeders.
What is worrying, though, is the government’s misuse of TRL data — without it being specifically quoted — in relation to the effect of speed differentials. The point about the work on speed variances was that it applied to single carriageway roads, where a wide range of speeds encourages (or necessitates) overtaking — arguably one of the most dangerous manoeuvres a driver can undertake. But, on motorways, opposing traffic is segregated so the speed differential is of less importance, underlining the TRL observation that its work cannot reasonably be extended outside the range of the various studies.
Speed not the issue
Empirical observation — for want of authoritative research — does in any event indicate that speed on motorways, per se, is of greater importance than other factors in accident causation. For instance, Sir Anthony Grant, president of the Guild of Experienced Motorists, in a letter to a major newspaper22, wrote:
“Excessive speed is certainly a factor, but more important — and neglected — is proximity driving, called “tailgating”. Doing 80mph on a clear motorway is far less dangerous than 50mph close behind another vehicle”.This view on speeding was endorsed by Edmund King, Executive Director of the RAC Foundation, who took the view that driving at 80mph on a motorway on a clear day was not dangerous23.
From their actions, the majority of motorway users seem to agree: 55 percent of drivers exceed the speed limit on motorways and 19 percent exceed 80mph24. Nor is this perception confined to the UK. Some 42 percent of European drivers are hostile to speed limits on motorways.
Surveys carried out by the European Union project on Social Attitudes to Road Traffic Risk in Europe (SATRE) show that the opposition does not come from any specific social grouping. The attitude is held by upper socio-economic groups and owners of powerful cars, for whom speed is of social and economic value. For them, time is very precious. But even manual workers, through second-hand cars, use speed as a means “to participate in technical modernity and to retrieve a symbolic dimension owned by leading class”. In fact, the only people who accepted happily and completely speed regulation were non-active women and the retired.
Sentiment appears to be similar in North America. One survey of driver attitudes to speed25 found that:
“Speeding in and of itself does not appear to be a high priority traffic safety concern. It is the associated behaviour of tailgating, unsafe passing, lane hopping, cutting in and running intersections that constitute the way in which drivers consider traffic safety problems. Erratic, unpredictable and ‘discourteous’ drivers, along with traffic congestion, are seen as primary sources of traffic problems”.Driver fatigue
Another important problem might be fatigue. From accident surveys conducted in conjunction with many police forces, Professor Jim Horne of the Loughborough Sleep Research Centre found that sleepiness was a major cause of serious accidents on monotonous roads in the UK, especially on motorways. According to Horne’s research, fatigue among drivers is responsible for one in 10 of all road accidents and one in five incidents on motorways and trunk roads26.
In this context, it is important to recognise that, in effect, an unofficial 80mph limit applies to the motorways. Except in extreme conditions or where other factors are involved, a motorist driving at 80mph is unlikely to be stopped by the police. However, should enforcement — perhaps through installation of speed cameras — be intensified and the 70mph limit be made to bite, the result may be an exacerbation of monotony, leading to an increase in accidents.
Most experienced motorway drivers will recognise the soporific effect of travelling for many hours at a constant speed and many vary their journeys with the occasional burst of high speed — where road conditions allow — in order to reduce the monotony. Others, this author included, prefer sustained spells at high speed — for up to two hours — followed by a half-hour rest and a coffee in a service station.
The point about these strategies is that experienced — and safe — drivers tend to work out their own ways of dealing with long journeys on motorways. But, under the proposed (and current) regimes, many of the strategies adopted are illegal, penalised by the criminal law. Alternatives which are regarded by many as less safe apparently meet with the approval of enforcement authorities.
A sense of grievance
Given the apparent illogicality of enforcement strategies, it is no wonder than many experienced drivers are left with a strong sense of grievance, a feeling that can only intensify if enforcement measures are strengthened.
Grievance is further intensified by the innate feeling that the government is not telling the whole truth about speeding, or is distorting the facts for what are, effectively, doctrinaire reasons. For instance, the Home Office consultation paper27 blandly asserts that “speed is a factor in one third of all collisions” and then goes on to claim that “this equates to around 1,100 deaths and over 100,000 injuries each year”.
The source of this information is cited as the “DETR speed review” but no page or paragraph number is identified. Within the review, however, no such figure is cited, the reference to “collisions” simply making the point that “there is overwhelming evidence that lower speeds result in fewer collisions of lesser severity”.
As regards actual figures, Broughton et al are cited28, researchers whose work is claimed to have indicated that excessive speed was a contributory factor in 15 percent of 2795 accidents studied. The review adds that speed will have been a reason for other factors such as failure to judge another person’s path or speed, which caused 623 of the accidents, about 22 percent. It adds: “It is not possible to quantify these contributions directly”.
Whimsically, one might suggest that all road traffic accidents are speed related, on the basis that, if all vehicles remained stationary, there would be no accidents at all. This notwithstanding, accident causation is far more complex than the simple matter of speed.
Essentially, its is inappropriate or excessive speed which kills, driving too fast for the prevailing road conditions — or the design speed of the road. But even then, most accidents are multi-factoral. Where speed is involved, it is usually in combination with another factor (or several other factors), the combination amounting to driver error. Driver error is in fact the main problem — which the DETR speed review suggests is a contributory cause in over 90 percent of accidents. In that context, it concedes, driving too fast is a form of driver error, in failing to judge what is a safe speed.
Furthermore, the Broughton et al study differs significantly from other, similar studies. For instance, in another TRL study of contributory factors in accidents, excessive speed ranks a mere fifth, after: failure to judge other person’s path or speed; careless/thoughtless or reckless driving; inattention; and “looked but did not see”.
Moreover, while “excessive speed” was cited in 7.3 percent of accident reports — as compared with 10.3 percent for “failure to judge…” — the very term (as applied in accident recording) does not distinguish between speed in excess of the posted limit, or speed too high for the road conditions, albeit lower than the posted limit. Thus driving well under the speed limit in fog on a motorway — but too fast for the conditions — would be attributed as “excessive speed”. The data provided give no indication of the contribution made by “speeding” — i.e., driving in excess of the posted speed limit — to the overall accident rate.
Here there is some difficulty reconciling the dry statistical analyses with the reality of road traffic accidents — or what passes for reality — reported in the newspapers. Taking a selection of such reports in which speed was reported as a factor, one comes across a bewildering array of incidents.
Take for instance, the “Disabled RAF man jailed over 80mph death crash”29. Philip Wakefield, a disabled RAF officer, 46, had been driving fast to collect his daughter for the Christmas celebrations. He had raced along country roads only to lose control of his car as he rounded a bend. It had bounced off the kerb and careened into a Fiat Punto driven by Tammy Wheeler, 24. Miss Wheeler died two hours after being taken to hospital. Mark Adams, a lorry driver, who had been overtaken by Wakefield’s Ford Mondeo, described the overtaking manoeuvre as “idiotic” as the Mondeo raced at 80mph.
Perhaps not entirely dissimilar, in terms of causation, was the “Driver rushing to watch match killed three” incident30. Simon Snoddy, 25, an engineer in Edinburgh, was so keen to watch a match between Scotland and Norway at his girlfriend’s flat that he left work 10 minutes early. He heard the kick-off on the radio as he drove and was driving at almost twice the speed limit, 58 mph in a 30mph zone, when his car had ploughed into another, killing its three occupants. The road was wet from drizzle.
Then there was the case of Stephen Pengelly, 37, a gardener, who was already on bail for a previous drink-driving offence. After a drinking session lasting six hours in the Half Moon Pub at Tiverton, Devon, during which he consumed six pints and ten rums, he bet a friend that he could set a record for driving to the junction of the A361 and the M5 motorway in his new car. While trying to overtake another driver on the inside, driving “in excess of 100mph”, he had lost control of his Astra GTE and careered across the central reservation into a Ford Fiesta driven by Miss Charis Yeoman, killing her outright31.
Darren Toombs, 26, on the other hand, was driving his articulated lorry at 62mph in fog down a Derbyshire hill. Ahead of him were two other lorries: the first slowed to turn into a pub car park, with the second braking sharply behind it. Toombs saw the fog lights but had been travelling too quickly to stop in time. He took evasive action and swerved into the oncoming lane, colliding with a car driven by Inspector David Hogarth, of the Derbyshire Police, killing him and his two young sons. As he jailed Toombs for four years, Judge Orrell told him: “The lives of a father and his two sons were prematurely and needlessly ended just because you were in a hurry to get to your base” 32.
Then there was the case of the “Porsche test drive leaves three dead”33. A promotional day for Porches at a country hotel ended in tragedy when three people died in a fireball after a head-on crash involving a demonstration model. Twelve potential customers had been invited to view a presentation of nine of the latest models, and one had been invited by a sales executive to take a Porsche 911, with a top speed of 168mph, for a test drive. Four hundred yards from the hotel gate, the car collided with a Renault 5 being driven by Karen Daly, 22, the hotel’s assistant manager. Both cars were engulfed in flames, killing all three people. Inspector John Evans, of Dyfed-Powys police, said: “We believe speed was a factor in the tragedy”.
Another tragic case was the “Maniac driver hits papergirls” incident34. This occurred when 17-year-old Mark Forrest — who had only passed his test three weeks previously — had been allowed to take his friend in his mother’s Renault 19 to fill it with petrol. Witnesses said that he was driving at an estimated 60mph — twice the speed limit — in Walsgrave, Coventry, when he mounted the pavement, hitting three girls doing a newspaper round. Keyleigh Parker, 12, was killed and her sister Simone, 14, was injured. The third girl, also 12, escaped unhurt. Phillip Binch, who saw the crash, described Forrest as “driving like a maniac”.
Two schoolgirls were the focus of yet another tragedy when Douglas Ramsay, 19, had been driving his Mercedes delivery van in Hamilton at 52mph in a 30mph zone. The girls had been skipping down a nature trail near their homes and had run out in front of another car and then in front of Ramsey’s van. Emma Shaw, 16, and Laura Hainey, 15, were hit with such force that they were flung in the air35. Both died.
Mary Woods, 28, was another fatality, crushed under Peter Wallace’s car when it mounted a pavement near his home in Peckham, South London. Wallace, an off-duty policeman, had been attending a memorial service for his brother, who had committed suicide. Afterwards he had drunk between seven and 10 pints of strong lager and had had a row with his mother before getting into his car. As he rounded a bend immediately before the accident, he had been doing “more than 30mph”. The safe speed was 5-15mph36.
An-off duty policemen was the victim of another crash, killed when his speeding car hit a tree while he was reading a message on his mobile telephone. PC Daren Riley, of Yarlington, Somerset, was driving to work in heavy rain when his mobile phone bleeped to indicate that he had received a message. He tapped ten buttons to scroll through the three-page text message. The officer continued driving hard, reaching speeds of 75-90mph along the rural road as he overtook another car. He then lost control of his Nissan Primera as it skidded off the road and crashed into the tree37.
It was a young mother, Miss Leanne Davis, 21, who died in Nantyffylon while out in her Ford Fiesta with her boyfriend. Driving about 20mph, her car had been hit by a Peugeot 106, driven by Carl Edwards, a 16-year-old boy. Edwards, who had taken the car without his mother’s permission, and his 11-year-old friend, also died in the crash. Four passengers were seriously injured. Just before the crash, a witness had seen the stolen car travelling “at more than 60mph”. It is believed to have skidded as it had sped through Nantyffylon, before crashing into Miss Davis’s car38.
Mrs Paula Thornton, 36, a mother of five children, was the victim of yet another incident. She died when a car, driven by Robert Newton, 21, had crashed into her car while being driven at 60mph in heavy rain on a 30mph road. Her youngest child, Kyle, was left permanently disabled39.
At a junction in South London, it was Wayne Peynado, aged 17, who died after been run down by Kempsyl Hyles in his Vauxhall Calibra. Peynado, delivering pizzas on his moped, was at a junction when he was “mown down by a car that jumped a red light, was speeding and travelling on the wrong side of the road”. Afterwards, the vehicle was driven away at great speed”40.
In Manchester, in April 1997, a group of five young men, riding in a stolen car, died after it hit a tree. The group, in their teens and early twenties, were in a red Ford Orion, which had been reported stolen from Salford University. It had been driven off at speed after being seen by police in a dog-handling van. According to a police spokesman, the accident happened when the Orion’s driver “lost control and collided with a tree”. The driver had appeared to take “evasive action”, possibly to avoid a Toyota van that had pulled out from a side street seconds before the crash. The car was thought to have been travelling at around 80mph at the time. So severe had been the impact that the car was torn in two, one half ending up 20 yards down the road from the other41.
A speeding stolen car was also involved in an incident in Morganstown, Cardiff, when a 16-year-old youth driving a Vauxhall Nova hatchback skidded out of control and mounted the pavement, killing nine-year-old Teleri West. Her 14-year-old friend, Sean Rogers, who was walking with her, was seriously injured. Police arrested the driver, who later failed a breath test42.
For sheer scale, however, none of these incidents compare with the dramatic accidents that sometimes occur on motorways. One such was the massive pile-up in fog on the M42 in the West Midlands in March 1997. The crash involving 90 vehicles, some of which caught fire, turned a half-mile stretch of the motorway into a scene one motorist described as “like a battle zone in Bosnia”. Three people were killed and 62 injured. The failure of motorists to adjust their speeds to conditions was widely blamed43.
Police, quite rightly, often emerge as heroes in these incidents, but they too are involved in their share of fatal road accidents. One of the most notorious in recent times was the incident when a police driving instructor, driving an unmarked, high performance Rover 827 on the A10 at Harston in Cambridgeshire, ran into a nurse’s car and killed her. PC Gerard Sharratt was involved in a 100mph training exercise, with three students in his car, acting as a “bandit”, being chased by another car driven by a police student. He rounded a left hand bend and “did a double-take” when he saw cars queuing in front of him, braked, skidded and hit the stationary car owned by Miss Judith Wood, 27, at 56mph. Sharratt had been driving at between 100 and 116mph when he had braked44.
Then, in March 1996, Channel 4 TV news presenter, Sheena McDonald, was knocked down and seriously injured by a police van answering an emergency call to a fight in Holloway, north London45.
But by no means all accidents occur while police vehicles are responding to emergency calls. In 1997, PC Adrian Ward was taking Shelley Simmonite, 15, home to her parents after she had been arrested for suspected shoplifting. Driving at up to 120mph, he had gone through a red light and had lost control, hitting a van. He was estimated to have been travelling at 65-75mph when had applied the brakes. Shelley was killed in the crash46.
In 1996, after the Cambridgeshire incident, police were being urged to review their pursuit training47 and, in 1998, the Lund report recommended that all police involved in pursuits be given special training. But, in November 2000, it was being variously reported that the number of deaths from accidents during police chases had risen by more than 50 percent48, by 140 percent49 and, in December, by 300 percent50. Either way, 22 people had been killed during police chases and there had been nine deaths arising from other police road accidents. Overall, there had been 17,300 road accidents involving the police in 1998. Sir Alistair Graham, chairman of the Police Complaints Authority, observed:
“There is worrying evidence (that) the skill and judgement of some police officers is open to question and criticism”51.Nor are police evidently great respecters of traffic laws — or, at least, any greater respecters than ordinary people. That was a finding of the TRL, which suggested that only nine percent of magistrates and 11 percent of police would observe the 30mph limit on an urban road in clear daylight with little traffic52. And, apart from the celebrated case of Home Secretary Jack Straw’s police driver who escaped prosecution despite driving at 103mph on the M5, there have been a number of other high profile embarrassments.
In 1996, Ben Gunn, the Chief Constable of the Cambridge Police, was seen driving at 90mph on the M1153. At least he was given a fixed penalty ticket and three penalty points. But not so the chauffeur of Dennis O’Connor, head of the Surrey police, who in December 2000 saw his driver escape without sanction when his car was pulled over by his own officers on the A3 near Guildford, despite his driving at 78mph in a 50mph zone54. Others had not been so fortunate. In September 1999, three policemen were banned from driving after being caught riding their motorcycles at 110mph through one of their own speed traps, on a road with a 60mph limit55.
On the other side of the balance sheet, in each of the years 1997 and 1998, 9.8 million motoring offences were dealt with. These were the largest numbers to date. They represented 403 offences per thousand vehicles licensed in 1997 and 386 offences per thousand in 1998, compared with 380 per thousand in 1990. For 1999, 9.5 million motoring offences were dealt with, representing 363 offences per thousand vehicles licensed.
There were 2.1 million court proceedings for motoring offences during 1999, down three per cent on 1998 following a fall of one per cent in 1998. The number of speed limit offences dealt with by police action increased by nine per cent from 891,000 in 1997 to 975,000 in 1998 and increased again by four per cent to 1,015,000 in 199957. Cameras provided evidence for 551,000 offences dealt with in 1999. Overall these cameras provided evidence for 49 per cent of speeding offences dealt with58.
Of the one million plus speeding offences, what does not seem to be available is the number attributed to motorway driving. Bearing in mind that motorways account for only one percent of the road network, and accident risks are lower on these roads than elsewhere, if enforcement was risk-driven, the actual number of offences recorded should reflect the reduce risk. Since there are fewer cameras on motorways than elsewhere — which account for roughly half of offences recorded — the total should, therefore, be in the order of about 5,000 for the year 1999.
However, there is a suspicion that the bulk of police resource is directed at motorway traffic, evidenced by the fact that, on just one stretch of the M5 near Taunton in 1999, police picked off 15,000 drivers for exceeding the speed limit. This is the very stretch of road where Jack Straw’s police driver escaped penalty. Many of the drivers who were penalised can testify to being stopped on a clear stretch of road, in good weather conditions, when the risks of driving at high speed were at their least.
Given that careless/reckless driving rates more highly than excessive speed in accident causation — and examples of both abound — police interest in this category of offence should be high. But this is not evident in the statistics. Compared with the million plus speeding offences, a mere 97,000 careless driving offences were dealt with in 1999, with dangerous driving accounting for less than 10,000.
Elsewhere, it is recognised that offences like speeding are easier to enforce, not least because there is good monitoring equipment which provides reliable proof, whereas there is no corresponding equipment for monitoring antisocial driving behaviour59. Even without reference to specific research, not a few people suspect that speeding attracts so much of the police attention precisely because it can be measured easily and convictions are easy and cheap to obtain.
That suspicion is reinforced when historical data are examined60. In 1951, 29,000 offences of careless driving were dealt with, a third of the current level. But with speeding, the level in 1951 was 83,000 compared with the million-plus currently. It is hard to believe that careless driving has only grown threefold while speeding in the same period has increased twelve-fold.
That undue concentration on speed enforcement is harmful was effectively endorsed by the (US) Association of Highway State Troopers. In 1988, members passed a resolution against the (then) maximum speed limit, noting that the 55mph limit caused:
“the over-concentration of limited resources for the express purpose of attaining compliance rather than allocating resources in a manner most effectively enhancing total highway safety”61.The effect on confidence in the police
The data cited tend to confirm the perception that, over the years, there has been something of a regulatory onslaught on speeding. This has not passed without an effect on public confidence in the police, especially when comparisons are made with their apparent failure to deal with what is considered to be “real” crime. In a recent comment piece in The Daily Telegraph, columnist Boris Johnson remarked (in a typical snipe at the police) on the absence of police on the beat, noting that:
“A cynic would say that they were all stuck on racial awareness programmes, or deployed in desperate attempts to catch paedophiles in ancient public schools, or lurking in lay-bys in the hope of penalising a motorist…”62.Christopher Booker, a Sunday Telegraph columnist was more forthright63. He noted the huge increase in fines for breaking the speed limit. In six years, the annual total had risen two thirds. He then wrote:
“…one has to ask what real purpose is being served by all this focus of police effort on catching motorists simply for a technical breach of a limit, rather than for driving at speeds inappropriate to the conditions”.He continued:
“…what is most worrying about this apparently one-sided war against motorists is the way it seems to be turning the police into another version of those regulatory officials… who seem simply concerned with enforcing a system of checklist regulation. This is regulation that has parted company with any attempt to address genuine problems and where the offence becomes simply a failure to comply with procedures; but whose enforcers, precisely because they are not performing any useful job, therefore tend to act in a strikingly officious and self-righteous manner”.What must therefore be considered is the effect of increased enforcement on relations between the police and the public. UK research64 into the use of automated speed camera, where the first introduction met with general approval, sounds a warning note, with the researcher noting:
“It is possible that present ‘contentment’ could evaporate, to be replaced by alienation of the average driver”.Across the Atlantic, in British Columbia, there have also been warnings, viz:
“Our findings could indicate that radar cameras have the potential for an opposite effect from reduced speeding. Moreover, the sum total of the resistance to the perceived unfairness of this enforcement may be generalised to other forms of law enforcement”65.Given that effective policing requires consent, the government must confront the issue as to whether increased traffic enforcement will cause a deterioration in relations which will prejudice other police activities, the net result being poorer police performance in other areas for which they are responsible.
Furthermore, any speed regulation — and enforcement — must be seen to be fair. According to the DETR, for speed limits to be respected they not only need to be appropriate for the road, but also to be understood.
“Inappropriate limits are often ignored and make drivers less willing to comply with the system generally66,it says.
One US research team came to similar conclusions67:
“…on average current speed limits are set too low to be accepted as reasonable by the vast majority of drivers… The posted speeds make technical violators out of motorists driving at reasonable and safe speeds”.Another observed that68:
“Most drivers will operate vehicles at speeds they feel are reasonable and appropriate for the conditions and posting any different speed limits will have little or no effect. So the idea of applying ‘common sense’ to speed limits makes lots of sense, providing this common sense refers to what people do instead of what they would like others to do”.From a personal perspective — known to be shared with many other drivers — using criminal sanctions against drivers operating speeds that they feel are “reasonable and appropriate” engenders considerable resentment.
Overall, there needs to be a sense of perspective and an underlying acceptance that any system applied is fair. For instance, driving five mph faster than a posted speed limit of 30mph — in terms of the danger presented to pedestrians and other road users — is arguably significantly more dangerous than driving at 10mph over the posted limit on a motorway in good weather conditions with low traffic volumes.
In fact, it would be hard to argue that 80mph on a motorway in these conditions was at all — or significantly — more dangerous than driving at 70mph. Yet the government proposes to treat 35mph in a posted 30mph area in exactly the same way as 80mph on the motorway. Worse still, it is suggested that 55 mph in a 30 mph urban area is equivalent to 95mph on a motorway.
Therein lies an important and quite possibly fatal defect in the government proposals. Compliance — without Draconian and intrusive enforcement — is only assured when there is general consent as to the validity (and fairness) of the law. Once a law is perceived to be unreasonable, it falls into disrepute and is widely flouted.
If, for road safety reasons, it is vital that speed limits at or below 30mph in urban areas are respected and less important that there is strict compliance with 70mph limits on motorways, then treating speeding uniformly is likely to be counter-productive. Many drivers will respond to initiatives on speeding in urban areas (where there is good evidence of a direct causal link between accidents and excessive speed), but indiscriminate targeting of all speeders will not necessarily result in increased compliance.
However, much of the legitimacy for the government’s initiative rests on research carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory, the work from which is freely used by the DETR and Home Office. Nevertheless, it is clear that much of the work is being selectively used and seems to demonstrate a definite, anti-speed bias. As a result, there is a danger that the government is seeking overly simple solutions to what is a very complex problem.
Not least, while work has been carried out to demonstrate causal relationships between excessive speed in certain circumstances and accident rates, less work has been done on the effect of various enforcement strategies. As regards some of the government’s keystone proposals — revamping the points system, disqualification and confiscating cars — such research as is available is somewhat equivocal. According to the latest study, carried out across the EU:
“The scientific evidence for a strong deterrent effect of point systems is scarce. A demerit point system, increased penalties for recidivism, possibly of confiscating cars or withdrawal of the driving license, etc, can be assumed to enlarge the effects on speed behaviour. However, often no information is given in the literature regarding these aspects, making comparison between research results rather difficult.Here, the “dose of reality” section in this text raises some important points. Harrowing as the accident accounts may be, and indeed the very recording of the summaries was a harrowing experience, the one thing they have in common is that they are all exceptional. That may well be an artefact, as the newspapers would be expected to focus more on the unusual and the tragic.
Again, even after the present review and the additional information collected from the participating countries, on the basis of the available evidence, the overall conclusion remains the same, i.e., at present it is not possible to show in quantitative terms how points systems support police enforcement”70.
Nevertheless, the average motorist/newspaper reader who absorbed the details over time would hardly recognise themselves in any of the descriptions, or equate the speed in the circumstances described with their own excess speed, say 35mph in a 30mph zone or 85mph on a motorway. Even the motorway example cited was exceptional, arising in foggy conditions — hardly to be equated with “speeding” on a clear motorway on a sunny day.
But the other point to emerge from the narratives — both the general accident summaries and the police incidents — is their multi-factoral nature. While all clearly involved speeding, there were a considerable number of other factors at play. Excluding the motorway and the police examples, these can be grouped in the following way:
Group 1. Phillip Wakefield — the disabled RAF officer: rushing to collect his daughter. Simon Snoddy, the Edinburgh engineer, was rushing to his girlfriend’s flat to watch football on TV. Darren Toombs, the Derbyshire lorry driver, was in a hurry to get to his base. All three were driving well over the respective speed limits, and thus all three accidents nearest approximate to the definition of “excessive speed” as the primary causal factor.
Group 2. Mark Forrest — the 17-year-old who had only passed his test three weeks earlier and had taken his mother’s car to fill it with petrol and run amok. Then there was sixteen-year-old Carl Edwards who took his mother’s car without her permission.
Group 3. Stephen Pengelly, the gardener on bail for a previous drink-driving offence, who gets drunk again and sets off on a high-speed drive. Peter Wallace, the off-duty policeman who got drunk after his brother’s memorial service.
Group 4. The group of five young men killed in a stolen car, and the youth in a stolen Nova hatchback.
Group 5. The Porsche promotion, Douglas Ramsey in his Mercedes Delivery van, PC Daren Ridley, speeding while answering his mobile phone, and Robert Newton who crashed in the driving rain.
In group 1, a common factor was that all three drivers, for their different reasons, were in a hurry. Apart from “speeding”, therefore, a more fundamental cause of their accidents might be better defined as “impatience”, or even a lack of responsibility, to the extent that personal need (to arrive in time) was put ahead of the rights of others to live. Group 2 comprised very young, inexperienced drivers, taking their parents’ cars and causing havoc. One common factor here, apart from youth, might be the relative indiscipline of the youths involved. Group 3 comprised drunk-drivers and group 4 involved stolen vehicles. Group 5 is possibly the nearest to simple speeding cases, but drink was quite possibly involved in the Porsche incident, and the PC Ridley incident was compounded by the use of the mobile phone.
It may be that these groups represent a small minority of the much larger number of drivers who are annually responsible for deaths on the roads. But, even discounting any tendency for sensational reporting, it is clear that a considerable number of accidents involve groups of people — such as those identified — far removed from the average motorist.
Amongst them are the criminals — those who are actively involved in stealing and misusing vehicles, and those who are using vehicles for criminal ends. Then there are the criminally reckless, including the drunks and the “boy racers” — of all ages, teens to eighties — for whom maturity and experience are in inverse proportion to the power of their vehicles. The next category might be the criminally irresponsible, those who allow their own personal needs to over-ride safety and caution — the types who will use mobile phones while driving but do not recognise the danger they present and press on regardless at speed, or the ones who consider that their needs to reach their destinations quickly over-ride all other considerations. And then there are the police, in or out of uniform, who seem to regard the Queen’s highway as a combination of playground and battlefield.
The central point, of course, is that there are many different types of driver and the reasons each cause accidents are fundamentally different. Even within the groups identified there were different reasons. If a larger sample was taken, it is almost certain that many other factors would be identified. What clearly emerges, therefore, is that, for prevention purposes, “speeding” accidents cannot be treated as homogenous. To concentrate on one simple solution, such as speed reduction, is not logical. What will influence one group will not necessarily have an impact on another. As a result, the enforcement strategies and the penalties proposed might well catch out the otherwise law-abiding citizen — the easy targets — but they may also leave the accident problem unaffected.
Looking at police accidents in this context, it is evident that, for the most part, the speeding laws do not apply. And while training has been identified as one mechanism for reducing the casualty toll, Dr Gordon Sharp, a former RAF medical analyst, likened police drivers to jet fighter pilots. Both, he maintained, suffer from “Top Gun Syndrome” which causes them to lose the ability to make swift and accurate decisions. The answer, according to Dr Sharp, is to teach drivers to spot the warning signs71.
As regards the single motorway accident cited, the fog-related crash is all too familiar, as indeed is the rash of crashes observed after a dry spell, when the roads are slick and greasy with recent rain. Speeding, of course, is the obvious villain but Matthew Joint, the AA’s driver behaviour specialist, has taken a more profound look at the effect of fog on motorway driving. He says fog gives drivers a sense of unreality: “It reduces driving a car to something akin to playing space invaders”72. Clearly, something other than simple admonitions about speed is needed to address this phenomenon.
A problem for government
All of this presents a problem for government and road safety campaigners. If they are going to rely on greater enforcement of speed limits to effect casualty reductions, they may miss the mark. The point was put succinctly by Marian Pallister, a columnist for the Scottish Daily Herald, who wrote:
“No speed sign on earth is going to prevent accidents like the one at the weekend which killed a 14-year-old driver and his friend when they ploughed under a lorry on the road from Coventry to Skegness. There were eight children in the car and the police said they were travelling at ‘extremely high speed’. Speed restrictions did not slow down the police car which shockingly injured Sheena McDonald. Nor do drunks react to speed limits”73.She went on to make an important point:
“Most drivers, however, are responsible citizens and the authorities have got to treat us as such. Show us plainly why it is a good idea to slow down and we will”.This is echoed by TRL researchers who maintain74:
“Providing convincing evidence of the link between speed reduction and accident prevention will be vital in underpinning and motivating these activities (directed at changing drivers’ attitudes to speed), which depend strongly on the authority and credibility of the message (this author’s italics)”.Generally, the “speed kills” message is not believed — or not equated with the ordinary, day-to-day business of driving a vehicle. If anything, many drivers believe that speed as a factor in accidents is grossly overstated.
This applies particularly to motorways but, in any event, if the government cannot provide better evidence that there is a link between the activities of ordinary motorists and accidents, initiatives aimed at reducing speeds will have an uncertain effect. As the DETR itself concedes,
“If public perception is that speed limits are wrong… this will make it particularly difficult to change attitudes to speeding through education and publicity. Enforcement and penalties would appear unduly harsh”.For many, there is actually no question of “if”. As regards motorways, a common perception is that the speed limits are wrong. And, without doubt, enforcement and penalties in many instances are seen to be unduly harsh.
Nevertheless, the government argues that the structure of road traffic penalties “has a part to play” in signalling what is dangerous, providing incentives for improvement, and by generally encouraging consideration for other road users. But, in arguing thus, the government has set itself an uphill task. More likely, it has set itself an impossible task as it is trying to signal something that, in respect of motorways, is demonstrably not true. It may wish to decry speed as an irresponsible act, synonymous with recklessness or worse, but even the average driver is sufficiently knowledgeable to know that the “speed kills” mantra is overly simplistic, if not downright dishonest. “Listening to lobbyists”, one motoring correspondent remarked75, “you might think that the M1 was the road to Basra, rather than the road to London”.
As long as the government continues to maintain that driving faster than 70mph on a motorway — in any conditions — is dangerous (signalled by its adherence to the 70mph limit and the imposition of penalties on those who exceed it), its whole policy on speed will be in danger of suffering from a terminal loss of credibility.
Thus, the main effect of an indiscriminate increase in the severity of penalties for speeding will be to create a core of resentment where an increasing number of drivers, far from supporting government’s policies on road safety, will be antagonistic to them. The result of that may be greater non-compliance and more deaths on the road.
Dealing with possible alternatives (and additions) to the government’s proposals, one thing that must be addressed is police driver safety. There seems to be a cavalier approach by the police to the speeding laws, who all too often seem above the law — redolent of the “canteen culture” which seems to pervade so much of police activity. The effect of that on ordinary drivers must be profound. As RAC Foundation spokesman, Kevin Delaney, put it:
“You cannot have two laws, one for the Home Secretary’s police driver and another for everybody else”76.Ordinary motorists can hardly be expected to respect the law when they see so many examples of it being broken by the people who enforce it.
Carrot and stick
Turning to more substantive alternatives, much of the work cited in this paper clearly indicates that the “stick” is of limited value. People generally do not respond to being hectored, badgered and bludgeoned into submission, or the patronising roadside lecture. Therefore, a true “carrot and stick” approach might be much more effective — especially if the safety implications of “excess” speed in differing circumstances were properly recognised and not overstated.
To achieve this, there must be changes to the government’s mind-numbingly negative approach to road safety. An attack on the criminally reckless is necessary but if the government is to engage ordinary motorists in a constructive approach to road safety, it would be better advised to adopt a different strategy. Instead of just penalising “bad” drivers, it should balance the equation by helping motorists to be safe, rewarding safe motorists and also taking measures — other than deterrence — to reduce the likelihood of offences being committed.
Looking at the main “reward” for driving, the simple fact is — in respect of private car ownership — that the main benefit is mobility, the ability to get from A to B quickly and comfortably. “Time is money” and a central benefit of car ownership is speed. Equally, many car owners enjoy speed, and buy powerful cars for the very purpose of being able to exploit their performance to exercise their skills. To penalise speed irrationally, therefore, is simply to penalise car ownership.
Putting this in context, the government readily recognises that the main problem group of drivers is that encompassing young males aged between 18-25, especially those who drive high mileages.
In order to deal with this group effectively, there must be a recognition that the current training and testing regime does not deal with fast driving, or even motorway driving. We have the absurd situation where a student driver has to qualify for a license without ever having driven on some of the most challenging roads in the country. Furthermore, because “speeding” is regarded as an offence, students are given no training in high-speed driving — despite the certainty that many of them will indulge in precisely that activity. In effect, untrained drivers are being let loose on society to cause havoc, mayhem and carnage, killing themselves in the process.
Here, the government concedes that the need for enforcement through the courts can be reduced through effective training and testing. It should follow its own precept: we need effective training and testing for high-speed driving, both to help drivers be safe and to reward them when they are.
Possibly the best way of dealing with this would be to introduce additional post-qualification training and testing throughout drivers’ careers. Here, it would of course be possible to require compulsory, periodic re-testing, but that again is a negative approach. It would be much better to make participation voluntary but offering specific privileges and incentives to qualification.
For young people, an important incentive would be reduced insurance charges, the prohibitive costs of vehicle insurance being a significant barrier to car ownership/driving and a significant temptation to drive without insurance. A recently qualified young driver may well have to pay upwards of £1000 for a fairly modest car. For those persons who had entered an advanced driving scheme, however, or passed the advanced test, substantially reduced premiums could be offered — perhaps with an initial financial contribution from public funds offered to insurance companies, to kick-start the scheme.
Another, important incentive would be the issue of official advanced licenses, clearly distinguishable from the standard documents, ownership of which would confer status to the holder. Here, there is another element that the government holds dear, the concept of “social enforcement”77. By this it means not only raising public awareness of the effect which the behaviours such as taking of drink or drugs can have on driving ability, but also changes in public attitudes. The behaviour of drivers and other road users can be altered by decisions on the part of drivers themselves and by those around them, their friends and other road users.
Largely, the government tends to view this in a negative light. It is attempting to alter the perception of speeding, making it as anti-social as drink-driving. But the positive aspect of providing the advance license is that it makes a public statement about the holder. The inherent cache of holding such a license could be positioned as demonstrating that fact, making it something “cool” in modern parlance, an object of aspiration and so valued that few would risk losing it.
Training and qualifications
As regards qualification criteria for the advanced license, eligibility might require a certain period — say two years — of trouble-free driving: no accidents or endorsements, plus satisfactory completion of an advanced training course.
It would be highly advantageous in these instances for the police to be actively involved in training provision. This would effectively “re-brand” the police forces as being positively involved in promoting better driving skills, instead of their being associated solely with their more traditional role of penalising poor driving. Such contact between drivers and the police, in a constructive framework, could only improve community/police relations.
Permission to speed
However, for the older driver who has accrued substantial driving experience and is able to benefit from no-claim bonuses, the incentive of lower insurance costs is less compelling. A stronger incentive would be required before these drivers might consider advanced training. For these, as well as younger drivers, the great incentive might be permission to speed.
Given current technology, there is no reason why on motorways, and motorways alone, there should not be a two-tier speed limit for car drivers — say the “normal” speed limit of 70mph for holders of ordinary licenses and up to 90mph for advanced drivers. While that latter figure might seem excessive for the risk-adverse, there is not a great deal of difference between it the de facto limit of 80mph.
However, contrary to current practice, such a limit should be treated as a maximum. The tolerance of “ten percent plus 2mph” relies on the fiction that a speedometers tend to under-read (thereby effectively permitting the 80mph) but, in fact, the tendency is for speedometers to over-read. In any event, it should not be beyond the wit of the legislators to devise a test for speedometer accuracy and to require tighter limits that could be checked during the annual MOT.
Nevertheless, the possibility of a higher speed limit does not rule out reduced limits automatically applying during rain and other adverse driving conditions, or giving statutory effect to the advisory speed warnings used on motorways. In any event, the sanction of careless/dangerous driving would still apply, permitting intervention by police officers who considered that any particular driver’s speed was excessive.
The need for slower speeds on motorways during the rain was reinforced by Dr Julia Edwards, of the University of Wales, who studied conditions on the M4 near Cardiff. Her study showed that 17 percent of all accidents occurred in the rain, outnumbering the amount of time it was wet, which was only eight percent of the time, with motorists reducing their speeds by an average of only 3mph in rain78.
But the extraordinary negativity of safety researchers is well illustrated by Dr Edwards’ solution: motorway speeds should be cut to 50mph in the rain. Undoubtedly, under certain conditions, speeds should be cut. But there are conditions when, even in rain, 70mph is safe enough, provided drivers make allowance for the increased stopping distances and leave sufficient gaps between vehicles. The specific need, therefore, is not for a reduction of speed, per se, but to match driving behaviour to the conditions. Failure so to do can be addressed by the police using dangerous and careless driving laws.
Note should be taken, however, of the difficulties encountered by police officers in proving dangerous and careless driving, but the remedy is perhaps simpler than might be imagined. The process could be facilitated by reversing the burden of proof, so that drivers who were in the opinion of the police travelling too fast — at whatever speed — would have to prove that their driving was safe, for a prosecution not to succeed. One can imagine that a body of case law would quickly be built up, to provide guidance for magistrates and other jurists.
Dealing with the broader issues of enforcement, we are already used to the concept of multi-tiered limits on the same stretch of road: on motorways, cars towing caravans and trailers and heavy goods vehicles are confined to 60mph. But while differences in vehicles are readily visible to the police, difference in driver qualification would not be.
However, since most speed checks now involve radar, whether hand-held or automatic, road-side units, it would not be too difficult to issue advanced drivers with their own personal radar transponders which would give a signal to interrogating radars, indicating that the driver was permitted to drive at the higher speed. Penalties for culpable misuse of the transponders would, of course, be very severe, including automatic loss of license.
Turning to the positive aspects of such a scheme, the immediate effect would be that most of those motorists who drove at speeds in excess of 70mph would at least be trained and qualified to do so. That alone should have a significant effect on road casualties.
But more importantly, the scheme could be set up so as to make retention of the advanced license conditional on absolute compliance with the 90mph limit and all posted speed limits on the rest of the road network. Failure to comply could not only be penalised with the normal fines and penalty points, but also with immediate loss of the advanced license — without resorting to the greater penalty of total disqualification.
For the first time, perhaps, in motoring history, drivers would be given a real incentive to comply with speed limits, the government offering a quid pro quo: you drive within the limits on ordinary roads and we will allow you to drive fast on motorways. Most motorists would react favourably to such a deal with the result that compliance on urban and single carriageway rural roads — where excessive speed really matters — would undoubtedly increase. Compliance on motorways might also increase.
Even if greater speed variance on motorways resulted, and in so doing caused a marginal increase in the casualty rate, the probability would be that this would be more than compensated for by a reduction in accident rates elsewhere, particularly amongst pedestrians and other vulnerable road users on urban roads.
However, to judge from US research, speed variance would not increase dramatically, if at all. With a more realistic speed limit, many of the very fast drivers — who travel in excess of 100mph — would slow down to 90mph. Not least, they would have too much to lose, the benefit of the marginal increase in speed over and above the 90 limit being too much of a risk. Slower drivers might also speed up — thus further reducing the variance — or get out of the way.
Any experienced motorway driver will be familiar with the scenario where, in moderate traffic, widely-spaced, slow moving HGVs dominate the nearside lane, being overtaken by a line of cars travelling not much faster on the middle lane. This leaves a longer line of faster traffic on the outside lane, often queuing up behind a single car being doggedly driven at 70mph by a driver determined that, in sticking to the posted speed limit, he is within his rights to take his time.
Under such circumstances, the temptation to “undertake” is too great for many drivers, and one sees with increasing frequency dangerous tailgating and wild manoeuvres as drivers zoom in and out of lanes in their attempts to pass the obstruction. Such behaviour would be less likely with higher speed limits.
Driving without licenses
Although the scheme described above could have a beneficial effect on road safety, there is another area that requires dealing with — the number of young persons who drive without a license and insurance. Since the inception of the New Drivers Act 1997, motorists who pick up six penalty points in the first two years after passing their tests lose their licenses and revert to learner status until they pass another test.
Under this regime, the number of new drivers losing their licenses has risen to 1,200 a month. The majority of the 13,000 banned under the Act so far have been young men, about 7,000 of them aged 18 to 1979. However, rather than being “pushed off the road” as some reports have suggested, many of these banned drivers simply continue to drive, but without a license. This undoubtedly has contributed to the estimated 800,000 driving on the roads with license or insurance.
Another tranche of drivers is those who have never qualified. For these and disqualified drivers, the negative attitude displayed by the government is of great concern. Its preferred remedy is yet again to increase penalties and enforcement.
From discussions with a number of young persons who have on occasions driven without ever having taken a test, however, their main point is that the costs and difficulties of obtaining full driving licences are prohibitive. Early qualification is beyond the means of all but the very well paid and those who have well-off parents. To an extent, obtaining a driving license has become a middle and upper-class privilege — “social exclusion” in action.
Apart from being discriminatory against low-income families, and therefore socially divisive, it seems that the increased severity of testing — with a view to increasing skills and competence of newly-qualified drivers — is having the unintended side-effect of increasing the number of unqualified drivers on the road. And it is these drivers, without the statutory qualifications, who often fail to take out insurance.
But, as is so often the case, despite the problem having been created in part by regulation, the government is seeking to resolve the problem by further and even more Draconian regulation. It would be much better if it tackled the problem at source. The way to do that would be to take a constructive approach.
One option would be to treat driving as a “life-skill” and provide free (or subsidised) driving tuition to young persons — from 16 upwards — as part of the core curriculum in secondary schools, to be followed through in further education institutions.
Developing this concept further, it is interesting to note that the state education system is prepared to subsidise the training of journalists — in university media studies courses — social workers, mathematicians and a whole host of other occupations, but makes no contribution to driver training. Yet drivers are vital to the economy, be they small van drivers, lorry or coach drivers, or even chauffeurs — to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands representatives, servicemen and other tradesmen who routinely use vehicles in their daily work.
Many less academically gifted students aspire to driving jobs when they leave school and, given their opportunities for creating carnage, it would make ultimate sense for further education colleges to be paid to develop commercial driving courses for them. These would fall short of HGV standards but, bearing in mind that ordinary license holders can drive a vehicle up to 7.5 gross tonnes, many commercial drivers will be driving on their ordinary licenses. They will have no formal training other than that which they obtained to gain their license in the first place, often after driving nothing more demanding than a small saloon car. Their training — up to and including advanced level — should be subsidised to the extent that it is provided without cost to the majority of students.
The great advantage of bringing driving into the formal education system would be the controlled delivery of the safety message to young people at a formative age in their driving careers — with the police being invited to contribute to driving courses.
But a crucial advantage would be that students who otherwise see no value in remaining at school would be motivated to remain in the education system. Many of these are the youths who feature highly in general crime statistics and who go on to become serious traffic offenders with the high rate of recidivism. In Austria, attempts have been made, ex post facto, to rehabilitate these offenders using psychological driver improvement courses — also mooted under the current government proposals. But efforts have met with mixed (and limited) success. Researchers in the field take the view that:
“The results support the assumption that traffic violations of young people are mostly a result of higher order behavioural requirements like reflection of goals for driving and goals for life and living”80.Shorn of its jargon, this means, essentially, that the young traffic offender is a “loser” in all walks of life, often the type who leaves school without qualifications, ambition or direction. Not only would a higher proportion of these be motivated to remain in the educational system but also the incentive offered could be used to control disruptive students, participation in courses being conditional on records of good behaviour. That alone might have significant side-effects, extending far beyond road safety.
Licenses for all
This “carrot and stick” approach could also be extended to control or modify the post-qualification behaviour of high-risk individuals, especially (but not exclusively) males in the 18-25 age bracket.
It is certainly the case in this group that driving is regarded as an expression of machismo, to the extent that flamboyant driving is encouraged by peer-group pressure, where risk-taking is courted. Here, the perennial problem is the perceived need by many youths to exhibit their driving skills. Many in this group are largely impervious to the “road safety” message. Therefore, ownership of the license, itself, needs to be positioned as an admirable attribute.
One move in this direction would be to issue the provisional license, free of charge, through schools — to all young persons, once they reach the age of 16, subject of course to medical suitability. This license could also serve as a proof of age card. No teenager would want to be without one. However, older teenagers would not want to be seen with the same documents as their juniors and would strive to obtain full licenses, their attainment taking on the status of a “rite of passage” with possession highly valued.
At the moment, however, once the full license has been gained, the government then offers only the negative incentive of not removing it, as a means of promoting safe driving. But, with an advanced driving license in prospect, recently qualified full license holders might be equally keen to keep the slate clean for the two years it might take to obtain the further qualification.
Pursuing the concept of rewarding drivers for good behaviour, blood donors will be aware that the Blood Transfusion Service, while not offering any pecuniary rewards for giving blood, do award bronze, silver and gold lapel badges to regular donors, once they have completed 25, 50 and 100 donations. The badge scheme costs a trivial amount to administer; yet the badges are highly valued by their recipients.
In the same manner, it should be relatively easy for the vehicle licensing authority to award similar badges — and perhaps car badges — for periods of accident and conviction-free driving. Intervals of five, ten and 25 years might be appropriate. If human nature is anything to go by, these badges would be sought after and highly prized by their recipients. Such a scheme could hardly fail to have a beneficial effect on road safety.
And, as is clear from the narrative, there are also serious criminal elements in society who happen to be drivers and extend their disregard for the law to a generalised contempt for traffic laws. That these people should be heavily penalised can only be good, not only in terms of road safety but more generally in upholding the rule of law. If there is evidence that certain types of offender have a high repeat offence rate, there is even a case for immediate, roadside bans for some serious categories of road offence. But the government must be more careful about pulling too many ordinary people into the penalty net, or branding them as criminals.
Imagine a driver, en route from — say — Leeds to Gatwick Airport to catch a flight. Despite having allowed a generous five hours for the journey, he is delayed by exceptionally heavy traffic on the M1 and loses two hours. To catch his flight, where minutes make the difference, he is forced to drive at speeds of 90mph along stretches of the M25. Is that driver, perhaps with a thirty-year accident-free record, driving a powerful car with all the current safety devices, to be considered a criminal? Or is he to obey the speeding laws, miss the plane and thence miss an important meeting, to say nothing of losing the price of the non-transferable flight?
If it could be honestly said, on the back of unimpeachable research, that our hypothetical driver was a menace to society, putting himself and others at serious risk, then there would be no argument. Criminal penalties should be applied.
On the face of it, that evidence might exist: the effects of drivers in a hurry have been recorded earlier in this text. But, if it is accepted that the underlying cause of the accidents recorded was a lack of social responsibility, there is a difference between our hypothetical driver and the three that were cited earlier. The difference is in scale and intent — between the drivers who decided to press on regardless, whatever the conditions and whatever the cost, and the driver who, while pressing on with maximum safe speed, is prepared slow down should conditions require. The former would drive at 60mph in a 30mph zone, the latter would never do so under any circumstances — but would do 90mph on a clear motorway.
One can understand the police preference for speed as the absolute measure: measuring “responsibility” is not possible with a hand-held radar gun or other simple device. But convenience of enforcement should never be the ultimate arbiter of good law. On the face of it, there is no good evidence that responsible drivers, who drive fast with care, present a serious risk to society. All those drivers want, in the words of Jim Baxter, spokesman for the (US) National Motorists Association, is “the right to drive at safe speeds legally and not having to worry constantly about getting pulled over”81. They should not be penalised.
This is especially the case when there is some evidence that rigid adherence to the 70mph limit on motorways could actually increase accidents. Not least, drivers baulked by heavy traffic are going to be much more relaxed about delays if they know they can make up lost time once the road clears. Given that, what price our “criminal” who is actually safer than the law abiding driver? What does that do for respect of the rule of law?
Then there is the sheer negativity of government proposals — redolent of the “nanny” state. Its idea of a “carrot” to balance the “stick” of penalties is to allow drivers, at their own expense, to remit points or penalties, by attending “driver retraining and improvement programmes”, to unproven effect. Is this really the way to win “hearts and minds”? Will this really improve safety?
Altogether, there is something seriously wrong with the tenor of the government proposals. They do cast the net far too widely and, in concentrating on speeding while refusing to allow more realistic speed levels on high-speed roads, risk alienating the driving public, further driving a wedge between already fraught police-public relations. And no greater damage could be done than to allow the police to keep the proceeds of fines.
Drivers already take a great deal of convincing that the police are not seeking to meet quotas of speed offenders and, whatever their protestations, no-one would believe that the police — free to earn income from their accursed cameras — would be entirely motivated by safety considerations in their choice of sites. And what chief constable, under financial pressure yet still required to meet performance targets, could resist the temptation of such a nice little earner?
Part of the government’s case on the motorway speed limit, however, is based on environmental consideration. Putting up the speed limit, it claims, would increase emissions and noise. That argument is cant. A Hillman Imp of 40 years ago used as much petrol doing 70mph on a motorway as does a modern saloon car, travelling at 90mph, the former using 4-star petrol, the latter running on unleaded and fitted with a catalytic converter. Pollution levels can be — and have been — reduced by technical innovation. Speed limits are not the appropriate tool.
As for noise, on motorways this can be best controlled by low-noise surfaces, to replace the many miles of concrete surfacing installed as a cost-saving measure, despite the many billions extracted from drivers for the privilege of enjoying mobility.
But the strongest arguments for a re-think are expressed in the multiplicity of work cited in this paper which indicates that, if speed limits are not reasonable, they will be ignored. The government wants people to obey the speed limits not just because they will be caught and punished if they do not, but because they believe they are appropriate. “Inappropriate limits are often ignored”, it says, “and makes drivers less willing to comply with the system generally”.
If the government wants people to comply where it really matters — and the case for targeted speed reductions in urban and other problem areas is unassailable — then it must give something in return. This paper sets out strategies that could achieve what the government, and the rest of us, really want: improved safety without unreasonable restrictions. What the government needs to decide is whether it wants to make more criminals out of its population, and fill the prisons that much quicker, or really address the problem of road safety. Until it makes the right decision, its policy is unsafe at any speed.
Bradford, West Yorkshire
Dr Richard North is research director for Europe of Democracies and Diversity (EDD), the political group in the European Parliament to which the UK Independence Party is affiliated.
Formerly a local authority environmental health officer, Richard has run his own business as a food safety consultant. He represented egg producers during the “salmonella in eggs” crisis in the late 1980s, supported small cheese-makers and has been a leading figure in the battle to prevent the closure of small slaughterhouses under EU rules.
Although his original discipline is food safety, he has been involved in European Union issues for over ten years, progressively extending his range of subjects covered. Working with Christopher Booker, the Sunday Telegraph columnist, he has co-authored two books, The Mad Officials and Castle of Lies — Why Britain must get out of Europe.
He still maintains a keen interest in food safety matters and, under his own name, Richard has recently produced the definitive book on food premises inspections, published by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health Officers
For Richard, road safety is a new area for intensive research but, with a background in safety and a comprehensive understanding of regulatory issues and bureaucracy — and an experienced motorist — he is well-placed to comment on government proposals.
Richard can be contacted by e-mail on: Rnorth@europarl.eu.int
01 For instance, in the equivalent period, there were approximately 9.000 fatalities each in France and Germany. In Portugal, with a population of less than 10 million, there were over 2,000 deaths.
02 The Guardian 1 March 2000. The government’s road safety strategy: text of Tony Blair’s speech.
03 DETR (March 2000) Tomorrow’s Roads — safer for everyone.
04 Home Office/DETR. Road Traffic Penalties — A Consultation Paper. December 2000.
05 Home Office. Press Release: 19 December 2000.
06 17 December 2000.
07 The Daily Telegraph 14 May 1998. “Drunken driver with leg in cast jailed for death”.
08 The Sunday Telegraph 24 December 2000.
09 Motorcycle News 20 December 2000. Letter: “It’s one law for us and another for them”.
10 The Daily Telegraph 20 December 2000.
11 TRL — Report 421. The effects of drivers’ speed on the frequency of road accidents. M.C. Taylor, D.A. Lynam and A. Baruya. Prepared for Road Safety Division, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. 2000.
12 DETR, ibid
13 Federal Statistical Office. Press releases: 22 February 2000 & 10 November 2000.
14 Farmer CM, Retting RA & Lund AK (1999) Changes in motor vehicle occupant fatalities after repeal of the national maximum speed limit. Accident Analysis and Prevention 31, 537-543.
15 DETR. New Directions in Speed Management. op cit. P.27.
16 Moore S (1999) Speed doesn’t kill — the repeal of the 55mph limit. Cato Institute: Policy Analysis. 346.
17 Lave C & Elias P (1994) Did the 65mph speed limit save lives? Accident Analysis and Prevention. 26.1, p.49.
18 Pant PD, Adhami JA & Niehaus JC (1992) Effects of the 65mph speed limit on traffic accidents in Ohio. Transportation Research Record. 1375, pp53+.
19 Parker MR (1992) Effects of raising and lowering speed limits: Final Report. US Department of Transportation, Federal Highways Administration. p.53.
21 op cit.
22 The Daily Telegraph 21 December 2000.
23 The Daily Telegraph 20 December 2000.
24 DETR — New Directions in Speed Management. A Review of Policy. March 2000 p.17.
25 C Thomas Hathaway Associates Inc. Radar Camera Public Opinion Research. Vancouver: 31 July 1994, p.14.
26 The Daily Telegraph, 6 November 2000, citing the Sleep Research Centre.
27 Home Office, op cit, p.22.
28 Broughton J, Markey KA, Suthwell MT & Plows B (1989) A new system for recording contributory factors in road accidents. Transport Research Laboratory TRL Report 323, Crowthorne.
29 The Times 23 December 2000.
30 The Daily Telegraph 20 February 1999.
31 The Daily Telegraph 18 July 1998. “100mph drink-driver killed chief inspector’s daughter”.
32 The Daily Telegraph 6 August 2000. “Lorry driver who killed father and sons gets 4 years”.
33 The Daily Telegraph 13 June 1995.
34 The Daily Telegraph 7 September 1999.
35 The Daily Telegraph 6 May 2000. “Speeding driver who killed given probation”.
36 The Daily Telegraph 6 November 1996. “Five years for death crash policeman”.
37 The Times 25 August 2000. “Death crash PC was using mobile phone”.
38 The Daily Telegraph 7 March 1995. “Boy orphaned by speeding joyrider”.
39 The Daily Telegraph 23 November 1999. “Family’s anger at two-year sentence on killer driver”.
40 The Daily Telegraph 11 September 1998. “Hit-and-run death driver gets five years”.
41 The Daily Telegraph 21 April 1997. “Five die as stolen car hits tree and splits in two”.
42 The Daily Telegraph 25 April 1997. “Teenager arrested after stolen car kills girl of nine”.
43 The Daily Telegraph 11 March 1997. “Motorway carnage compared to Bosnia”.
44 The Daily Telegraph 30 July 1996. “Parents’ anger as PC in death crash is cleared”.
45 The Daily Telegraph 1 March 1999. “Police van hits TV newsreader”.
46 The Daily Telegraph 16 September 1997. “PC fined £500 for crash that killed girl in police car”
47 The Daily Telegraph 8 October 1996. “Police to review pursuit training after fatal crash”.
48 Guardian 11 November 2000. “Police pursuit deaths up by 50%”.
49 The Times 11 November 2000. “Police urged to kill their speed”.
50 The Daily Telegraph 16 December 2000. “Sharp rise in deaths during police chases”.
51 Guardian, op cit.
52 The Daily Telegraph 16 March 1998. “Magistrates and police speed ‘like other drivers’”.
53 The Daily Telegraph 11 April 1996. “Police catch their off-duty chief speeding”.
54 The Daily Telegraph 23 December 2000. “Speeding police chauffeur let off”.
55 The Daily Telegraph 10 September 1999. “Ton-up police caught in police trap”.
56 Police Research Group Police Research Series Paper 12. (PRSP12) Traffic Policing: Activity & Organisation. Adam Ogilvie-Smith, Alan Downey & Elizabeth Ransom.
57 The average fine in court proceedings was £131.
58 Home Office. Motoring Offences England and Wales 1998 and 1999. Graham Wilkins, Paul Hayward and Katie Johnson. 19 December 2000.
59 Cauzard J-P, Jayet MC, Klemenjak W, et el (2000) The attitudes of various agencies towards new enforcement concepts: a qualitative study conducted in four European countries. www.vttt.fi/jki/escape.
60 Home Office. Motoring Offences. op cit.
61 Cited in Lave C. op cit.
62 Daily Telegraph, 21 December 2000. “Wanted: more bobbies on bikes — and who nicked mine?”
63 The Sunday Telegraph, 24 December 2000.
64 Road Traffic Offending and the Introduction of Speed Cameras in England: The First Self-report Survey. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 27.3 (1995), p.33.
65 Public Attitudes Towards the Use of Automatic Cameras for Enforcement of Traffic Law Infractions. Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, Traffic Safety Research Department, 1990. 47-51.
66 DETR — New Directions in Speed Management. op cit. p.27.
67 Samuel C. Tignor & Davey Warren. Driver Speed Behaviour on US Streets and Highways. Institute of Highway Transportation Engineers: Compendium of Technical Papers. August 1990. p.86.
68 P E Spitz. Speed vs Speed Limits in California cities. ITE Journal, 54.5 (May 1984), p.45.
69 The Daily Telegraph 20 December 2000.
70 Goldenbeld C, Heidstra J, Makinen T, et al (2000) Review of enforcement support systems in EU countries. “Escape” working paper 4 (WP3).
71 The Daily Telegraph 30 March 1997. “Road deaths blamed on ‘Top Gun’ police”.
72 The Daily Telegraph 11 March. op cit.
73 Daily Herald 22 September 1999. Opinion: Time to be more candid about the need for cameras”.
74 TRL 421 op cit.
75 The Daily Telegraph 6 June 2000, “How slow should we go?” Austin Williams.
76 The Daily Telegraph 3 October 2000. “Street legal: Speeding’s zero factor”.
77 Home Office/DETR. Road Traffic Penalties — A Consultation Paper. December 2000.
78 The Daily Telegraph 6 January 2001. “Speed limit should be cut in the rain”.
79 The Sunday Telegraph 2 January 2000. “New law pushes ‘boy racers’ off the road”.
80 Goldenbeld C, Heidstra J, Makinen T, et al, op cit.
81 Cited in Moore C. op cit.