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Speed, spills and thrills are not considered sexy any more. Austin Williams of the Transport Research Group takes issue with the killjoys and the safety campaigners

Speed reduction can kill

An Exeter city council employee complained to his road safety advisory group in March that the BBC's Top Gear was encouraging recklessness on the roads. Mr Collins, a keen cyclist, protested that Jeremy Clarkson's predilection for driving powerful cars at high speed was 'setting a bad example', 'showing off' and 'encouraging bad driving'. In a typically robust response, Clarkson told Mr Collins to 'grow up', among other things. However, he failed to challenge the emerging consensus that driving at speed is a growing problem.

Are people driving faster? I can't say that I've noticed. I am more perplexed that the issue is even being raised.

The government's White Paper on 'Integrated transport' focuses on speed as an inherently hazardous practice. The stated aim is a laudable one - reducing deaths on the road. But then deaths on Britain's roads are already at a record low. Back in 1987 the Tory government set a target of reducing all road accidents by one third by the year 2000, and this target has already easily been met. So at a time when fatalities on the road are at an all-time low and falling, it seems strange that concern over road safety should be racing up the agenda. The fact that a central feature of this is a discussion about the dangers of speed only adds to the mystery.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with speed. Richard Noble's Thrust, the car that broke the land speed record by touching 768mph, gave its driver Andy Green a few frights, but in the end the only casualty was Noble's bank balance. Record-breaking and racing against others at speed may be dangerous (though not so much now, thanks to the killjoys who run Formula One), but these are extreme examples of taking man and machine to the limits. They bear little relationship to the problems of everyday driving. Yet speed is now being isolated as a general source of danger to all drivers, passengers and pedestrians.

The parliamentary advisory standing committee on transport safety asserts that 'speed is the biggest single factor' in road accidents, while the department of transport, environment and the regions speculates that speed is a contributory factor in up to one third of all accidents. Yet there is no statistical basis for either assertion, other than the fact that one or more of the objects involved in a crash has to be moving, that is, travelling at some speed. Unfortunately, this does not get us very far.

Blaming speed for accidents presents the road safety issue as an abstract argument about the need for individual restraint, but ignores the very real measures which the authorities need to take to prevent specific dangerous situations arising.

As it happens, there is a good case for increasing the motorway speed limit to 85mph on safety grounds. On these, the fastest roads, accidents are fewer than on any other, even though they are more heavily trafficked. This gives the lie to the idea that speed per se is a problem. Indeed, researchers Lave and Elias of the University of California's department of economics have shown that, when the US freeway speed limit increased from 55mph to 70mph, there was an average 3.5 per cent decrease in fatalities in some states.

There may well be a case for lowering the speed limits in other areas and on other classifications of road, but it all depends upon what is called 'the given conditions'. Three-quarters of all accidents occur at junctions, for example. What conclusions can we draw from this? That people are approaching junctions too fast? Possibly. Or maybe people are pulling away too slowly? Indeed, what about the suggestion that there is an inherent problem with the junctions themselves: dimly lit, badly located and inadequately signposted? After all, isn't that why we have such things as accident blackspots? Surely a useful first step would be to upgrade substandard intersections.

There should be more clearly signposted local speed limits where there are obscured obstructions or dangerous bends. This is needed more in rural areas than in well-trafficked urban areas, where knowledge of the road is complemented by percentile speeds. If the signposting is correctly sited, experience shows that drivers respond to the instruction. However, if the cautionary signage does not correspond with the driver's actual experience of the risk - that is, if nobody can see the need for a 30mph limit on a fairly clear road - then the mean speed levels will exceed the posted limit over time. Rather than this being a heinous crime, I think it is reasonable behaviour, especially if it can be backed up with interactive signage systems which give updated warnings of specific hazards.

The Colorado department of transportation's Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems Programme is a good case in point. This improvement programme has been shown to aid mobility, reduce congestion and enhance safety through widespread use of advanced technology. Systems include roadside information which flashes up details of weather conditions ahead, advanced warning of tight bends, obstructions and route closures, as well as recommended vari-ations to the speed of approach to these hazards. Unfortunately, such massive investment in road infrastructure in the UK is not on the cards. Instead, drivers themselves are blamed for accidents. I think that this is a dangerous evasion.

Many theories have been developed to explain the decline in deaths on the roads. Most are based on the belief that high-profile road safety campaigns have been successful; that these campaigns, with their roads-are-dangerous-places message, have modified people's behaviour and made everybody more safety-conscious. The truth of this assertion is impossible to test. After all, over-cautiousness, as any road user knows, can cause more problems than it solves. It could legitimately be argued that, for driver and pedestrian alike, speed can be a lifesaver, whereas hesitation and sloth are major liabilities.

So is it the case that highlighting the dangers of the road has saved lives? It seems more likely that the accumulation of experience and expertise in the fields of highway engineering, car manufacture and traffic management has played a bigger part in reducing accidents than Tufty ever could. For example, fatalities have been cut in half on built-up roads in the last decade, but decreased by only 21 per cent on rural roads. This reflects more on the significance of urban infrastructural improvement than on the penetration of the Speed Kills message.

Given these facts, it is strange that commonsense local campaigns for improved street lighting, traffic lights and crossings seem to be a thing of the past. Instead, local demands now range from road closures to traffic bans and 'pedestrian' speed limits. Rather than this being a case of reclaiming legitimate joint use of the streets, Pedestrian Man is recklessly trying to assert his primacy over the motorist. With drivers in the dock, cyclists and pedestrians have an inflated sense of their own importance and years of sensible caution can be thrown to the wind.

Pedestrians and drivers are party to a contract with other road users that allows them to share the road in a reasonable, rational and ordered way. Once you call that into question then you may as well hang up your driving gloves. That contract is based on trust. Motorists trust that other motorists will drive on the left and not pull out in front of streams of traffic; they also trust that the pedestrian will not step out into the road. However, anti-speed campaigns are helping to undermine that trust. With the motor industry on the defensive, cars are now widely seen as accidents waiting to happen. The driver can only trust his airbag, SIPS and ABS, while the pedestrian is told to trust nobody but a local government official wielding an armful of anti-traffic measures.

Just over 100 years ago, the government abolished the need to carry a red flag in front of a motor vehicle and raised the speed limit from four to 14mph. In the same year, Mrs Brigit Driscoll was knocked down and killed by a car in Crystal Palace, so becoming the first casualty statistic of the age of the private motor car.

A century later and New Labour MP Helen Brinton is sponsoring a proposal for the widespread introduction of Home Zones - local authority designated residential areas in which 'pedestrians and pedal cyclists [will] have priority over mechanically powered vehicles'. In these zones, pedestrians will be allowed to stroll in the roadway and a standard 10mph speed limit will be imposed for the length of the street. The motorist will be deemed liable for any accidents. In this scenario I can well imagine that road casualty statistics in residential areas will increase regardless of speed, as drivers spend their time nervously looking over their shoulders rather than concentrating on driving. Red flags will be optional.

Reproduced from LM issue 111, June 1998

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