Road Safety

Or rather, Road Safety and the Rights of the Motorist

Environmentalists and government spokespeople would have you believe that cars are responsible for many of the bad things in the world today. This page presents some information which I hope is factually correct and may help redress the balance.

Updated 4th November 2002.


Car use has grown through the 20th Century, from nil to approximately 1 per every 2 people in the population

Deaths and accidents rose dramatically in absolute terms, despite the small number of cars on the roads. 7300 were killed in 1930, with 2.3 million cars on the road, and 7500 were killed in 1970, with 15 million cars on the roads. Since 1970, the numbers have been steadily drooping

Until, that is, we look at the period 1970 to 2000 in more retail. The total number of accidents has remained virtually unchanged at 250,000 per year. In 1970, that was 1.8% of vehicles being involved in an accident every year, and in 1999, 0.8%.

The fatal injury statistics look good, until about 1994, after which there is very little change. A worrying upward trend seems to be emerging after 2000.

Source of these statistics is the DETR Road Accidents Great Britain report

Most of the people who write about road safety seem to believe that the roads would be safer if we banned people from driving. Probably true, but not very productive. There are, however, some people who enjoy driving and are also concerned about road safety.

I drive a fast car, and I also cycle about 1000 miles a year. I am appalled at the standard of many people's driving and also at some of the attempts by planners to make roads safer.

Although I now cycle 15 miles to work in Cambridge, I used to drive to work 12 miles from Cambridge. My route to work took me through a small village. This forms part of one of the few roads leading into Cambridge and at rush-hour the road is at about 50% capacity. In their wisdom, the council have made each end of this road single lane, probably in an attempt to reduce the speed of traffic through the village. Now I normally have to stop, wait for maybe a minute for a gap in the traffic traveling the other way, and then accelerate past the obstruction. In order to fit into the available space, I will generally have reached 30mph by the time I have returned to my side of the road, and need to concentrate on not accelerating further. To make life even more dangerous for cyclists, a short central reservation has been placed just before the obstruction. What has the change produced?

Most road safety campaigning is directed at reducing speed. There are many reasons quoted for this, usually without any real scientific reasoning. However, there is a growing tendency to introduce 10 and 20mph limits and extend the scope of existing limits.

Speed is bad for the environment - Yes, but not as bad as any feature which requires traffic to slow down and then accelerate again. We should also consider the level of pollution that we are talking about here. Domestic heating generates huge amounts of pollution. A modern bus still generates 120 times the pollution generated by a car, over it's lifetime.

Speed will make an accident more serious - Yes, but the emphasis should be on reducing accidents rather than making them safe. Vehicle safety improvements result in an increase in the number of accidents. An illogical speed limit will tend to distract drivers, taking their attention from the road and directing it towards their speedo.

Many people who drive slowly are less observant than those who drive a little faster. All drivers will make inumerable tiny mistakes. The faster driver is likely to notice more of these mistakes and learn from them.

People who break the speed limits should be punished - No. People who drive dangerously should be punished. Speed limits are intended to be an indication of the maximum speed at which it is safe to drive under 'normal' conditions. Imposing unnecessarily low limits in places tends to make people ignore all the limits. Speed limits ought to be realistic. Consider the driver who usually keeps to the speed limits, but about once in 9 months exceeds the limit on an open road with good visibility. Does he deserve to loose his licence? Compare this with the 'accident prone' driver who has an accident every 9 months and obviously deserves our sympathy!

A worrying side-effect of telling motorists what the safe speed for a road is, and equating that to a fixed number, is that for the majority of the time, someone driving to the speed limits will be well withing the safe envelope. Even when it's wet, they will still feel just as safe as when it's dry. They will not realise that their previously large safety margin has become dangerously small.

Air Quality

We are told that cars are poisoning our planet, and we seem to believe what we are being told.

I would agree that this is an issue which ought to be taken seriously, but the facts ought to be brought into the open.

The Gatso

The major tool used for speed enforcement in the UK is the speed camera. When these were first introduced, we were assured that they were never going to be used as a means of revenue collection, and would only be placed in carefully considered locations.

Other countries in Europe seem more keen to use a less aggressive means of speed education by means of speed controlled traffic signs. The simplest example is the set of lights at a village crossroads which will turn red if you approach at too high a speed. Sufficient to act as a deterrent, used in exactly the correct place, safe, honest and non-revenue earning!

The speed camera is now spreading across the whole of Britain's roads. Not just used in accident blackspots, but now appearing on 'safe' sections of dual carriage ways and frequently hidden with the intent of catching the unwary motorist. As a result of the undue penalty for passing a gatso, my instinctive reaction on spotting one (unless it's expected) is to break. Sharply. On a couple of occasions, I have aborted overtaking maneuvers on spotting a gatso.

Even more dangerous than the actions of a motorist on spotting a Gatso are the consequences of an unsuspecting driver traveling at speed in the dark being subjected to a bright double flash from the other side of the road. There is an urgent need for research into the prevalence of accidents on roads where gatsos have been installed in different situations. This is important, because there will be instances where a gatso should improve safety.

I believe there is a place for localised speed enforcement or at least increasing driver awareness of their speed. Where this is necessary, it should be made obvious to drivers that they are approaching an accident blackspot with sufficient time to react safely. Speed cameras in Cambridge city centre are now painted camouflage green.

Some sites which campaigning for the rights of the road user:

Association of British Drivers
My ABD Cambridgeshire Local Area Page
Campaign against Speed Humps
Chris Ward

Cambridge Cycling Campaign.

If you have an interesting site, please let me know. Please let me know what you think of this page.

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This document is copyright Sean Houlihane,1998-2002, and may only be reproduced in full with acknowlegements, or referenced as a link.