140mph speed limit on motorways? Why stop there?

The more the state gives accountability to the road user the safer the roads become

Has technology given us a false sense of security?
David Atherton
On 22 October 2012 15:19

Like most of the 34 million drivers in the UK, I think my driving is as good as anyone’s. I have had knocks and bumps, biffs and bashes, but nothing that has had the insurance company claims department coming out in a cold sweat – hence my 27 years no claims bonus to date.

If you really want to learn road craft and live in a state of justified paranoia, take your life in your hands and ride a motorcycle. Nothing beats the cold hard stare of a frustrated driver with screaming kids in the back of their Chelsea Tractor, as they pull out in front of you knowing that they will just have a dent in their door. I have, over my career, commuted by car, bicycle, motorbike, train, tube, and bus. I have also driven extensively abroad and can confirm as a generalisation that the British diver is the best in the world. The London commuter driver is on a different planet to the rest of the world – road knowledge and road craft-wise.

Of course our roads are a source of death, and that is tragic. But without them we would be ruined economically and life would be so inconvenient. I am sure even George Monbiot has some furry dice dangling down from his rear view mirror.

It may surprise you to know the worst year for road deaths was 1940. Despite only 2.3 million licensed vehicles, 8,609 people were killed. In 2010, there were 34.2 million licensed vehicles and 1,850 deaths. 2011 saw a small increase to 1,901. We have the safest roads in Europe and probably the world.

The reason why 1940 was such a year of carnage was the complete blackout of street lights – and the standard of headlamps on cars were not much better than a candle in a brown bottle. Also if you include petrol rationing the roads must have been appalling dangerous. Men were advised to walk down the road with their white shirt tails hanging over their bottoms. Eventually casualties did go down.

Why have the roads become safer? No doubt one of the major reasons is technology and design: better brakes that have more than halved stopping distances; chassis and tyres that keep the vehicle more stable on the road; and probably the better design and building of roads too. The technology and advancement of science and treatment in accident and emergency is also crucial.  

What about the state? Has it made a contribution? Back in 1967 Barbara Castle, the Labour Transport Minister, steered through the Road Safety Act which determined a specific level of alcohol above which one was said to be impaired – 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood – but it was not necessarily a new phenomenon. From 1872 it was an offence to be drunk while in charge of carriages, horses, cattle, and steam engines. The fine was up to forty shillings and/or a month in prison with or without hard labour.

Before I go further, drink driving laws are something I agree with and the full majesty of the law should be upon miscreants. But while the law probably has saved lives, it does not seem to have had a revolutionary impact per se. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to show that the state ought to keep out of road safety.

The five year reductions in deaths per mile from 1950 to 1965 were 27 percent, 5 percent and 27 percent. Post breathalyzer, the reductions were 19 percent, 27 percent and 15 percent. However what I remember from social attitudes to drunk driving in the 1970s and 1980s was, if you got your obligatory 12 month ban and big fine,“bad luck mate.” By the 1990s it was us society, not the law that turned the tide.

When Jimmy Savile was not groping underage girls, he used to front the “clunk, click every trip” seat belt safety campaign. In the 1970s there was a lot of advice and government money spent to get us to wear our seat belts. By the 1980s the government felt it needed to make them compulsory. So under Margaret Thatcher’s watch on January 31st 1983, clunk clicking was made law.

To my mind this was the birth of the modern nanny state. The seat belt law fails the John Stuart Mill harm to others test. If you want to see the bonnet via the windscreen, they are your private property, and that is your risk.

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