Last year saw the first increase in death and injury on our roads since 2003 but like many I have to wonder; what impact have the cuts in roads policing over recent years had on road safety?
With the additional 20% cuts to frontline policing currently in the pipeline, along with constant (often politically motivated) changes to policing priorities, not to mention the selling off of enforcement responsibilities to other agencies and private companies, I can’t help thinking this worrying increase is set to continue at some pace.
Yes, the statistics for road collisions involving people being killed or seriously injured (KSI) may be on the increase, it may be the first time in nearly ten years there has been an increase but, despite the figures being worrying, the full reasons for the actual increase are myriad. And, as John Morrison pointed out in The Guardian recently, all be it predominantly from a cyclist’s viewpoint, this “narrow focus on casualty statistics is misleading” (see here).
Raw statistics never tell the whole story, and exclusive reliance on them can lead to absurd outcomes…(John M Morrison)
We have seen so many times before (see here) how crime statistics rarely paint a true picture of reality, why therefore should the ones relating to road casualties be any different? Even the Department for Transport (DfT) will tell you their figures are only a “best estimate” of the total number of road casualties in Great Britain each year (see here).
You could also bet your bottom dollar that any FOI request to a police force, asking about the number of motoring offence prosecutions, would probably reveal a decline over recent years. But that decline would have as much to do with continued reductions in police officers. Reductions that have resulted in the decline of police officers able to influence and control driver behaviour. However, many politicians (and some senior police officers) would probably suggest that; drivers are better behaved and more complaint with road traffic laws and regulations these days?
The fact that traffic legislation, which was mostly designed to make our roads vehicles and drivers safer for all, isn’t being complied with (let alone enforced), is a major contributory factor to the increasing number of casualties on our roads. Sadly, traffic police were always seen by many drivers as tax collectors for the government, as opposed to professionals able to influence driver behavior and make an impact upon road safety. But our roads, like any part of our community, need a visible uniformed presence too.
The way in which our media generally reports road collisions often doesn’t help the situation. Our perception of the risks involved in driving, along with our individual responsibilities as drivers, are often skewed by emotive headlines. Details of yet another “horrendous accident” where a “killer road claims another victim” and a “driver dies at accident black spot” all do little to help us understand the facts. I.E. Collisions are generally the fault of drivers and in reality, it’s often the actions/inactions of drivers that kill, not the roads!
Since the Preston Bypass opened in 1958 (Britain’s first motorway), our ‘high speed’ road network has increased beyond all recognition. The M1, our nation’s longest motorway, was originally designed to cope with about 14,000 vehicles each day however; more than 50 years later, that same piece of highway infrastructure now bears the weight of around 140,000 vehicles per day.
Great Britain has one of the best road safety records in Europe and the world. Despite massive increases in traffic over the last few decades, the number of people killed on our roads has fallen from around 5,500 per year in the mid 1980s to well under 2,000 in 2011. However, the number of deaths rose in 2011, from 1,850 the previous year to 1,901. This means that five people die on Britain’s roads every day…(RoSPA)
But motorways are (statistically) amongst our safest roads and speed, although sometimes a contributory factor in the severity of many collisions, usually isn’t the real cause of death and injury. It’s more about the inability of drivers to take appropriate avoiding action when things go wrong at speed. A vehicle can be travelling at 75mph but if the driver’s brain is only working at 35mph, rest assured it’s going to be painful when it hits something solid.
It should be obvious that a major factor behind the increase in collisions, especially those involving death and serious injury, is the actual increase in the number of vehicles on our roads. Vehicles that are being piloted by inattentive drivers with inadequate skills and poor standards of driver behaviour. But, as Safer Motoring have pointed out recently; despite our roads being “very dangerous” places, if you follow “some simple and sensible advice, you can significantly reduce your chances of being involved in a road accident.”
- 1,901 people killed on our roads – the first annual increase in road deaths since 2003
- Road accidents are biggest killer of young adults aged 16 to 24
- ‘Government should show more leadership on road safety’, says Commons select committee chair
Recently MPs called for “Councils with the worst road safety records being named and shamed” intended to cut casualty rates (see here). But as usual, this simplistic interpretation of statistics is probably more about the popularity of politicians, rather than any tangible action designed to combat a worrying trend.
Much of the public understanding (or misunderstanding) about any given issue, and road safety is no different, is developed from our personal perceptions and experience of the issue. Statistics probably have a much smaller part to play in that process than our perception mostly influenced by the media.
As John Morrison’s article highlighted; the Department for Transport doesn’t measure perceptions, only crash statistics. He goes on to suggest how perhaps they should copy the Home Office, which annually supplements its crime statistics by publishing the British Crime Survey, that measures perceptions. He concludes by suggesting if this took place “then we might come closer to a more holistic view of whether our roads are really getting safer or more dangerous.”
Despite the fact we can be rightly proud of Great Britain’s road safety records – some of the best in the world – with around 9 fatalities and 80 personal injuries every day (source – RoSPA), there is still much more to be done. Higher standards of driving along with individual capability of our drivers is the real answer to the problem, if we really do want to combat the situation presented by these recent sad statistics.
How we remedy this situation is mostly a matter of divided opinion. Especially as many people already think they are the best driver in the world. That said, we can also all be better drivers than we are now, can’t we? It may be a matter of personal choice but it’s also one that’s not expensive and is can be considered as a skill for life, in more ways than one!
The Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) offers the opportunity for drivers to improve their driving standards, helping to make them (and our roads) safer for us all. You can also find a great deal of road safety advice, information and resources at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA).
In my opinion as a retired police officer (and Advanced Driver), and no doubt also the view of many other safety professionals; roads policing is actually one of the most important and highly influential factors involved in road safety. It may be a relatively expensive resource however; that expense pales into insignificance when you compare it the high financial costs and human impacts involved in all KSI collisions.
One highly trained and professional roads policing officer is also worth numerous ‘safety camera’ systems, which despite lauded statistics, really are little more than a stealth tax collection tool. British drivers have little or no fear of being caught for their driving misdemeanors any more. They rarely see a police patrol car on their travels, they receive prior warning of most safety cameras via their SatNav and, they are more or less able to race around the country in defective vehicles with impunity.
Like many other areas of policing, the preventative aspect of their role is being lost. This important root part of British policing, one that is often difficult to quantify and measure, has long been dismissed and undervalued by bean counting managers and their political driven masters. Despite the fact prevention is generally more desirable than the cure, since 1829 that was, until relatively recent times, always the primary responsibility of efficient policing.
“The primary object of an efficient police is the prevention of crime: the next that of detection and punishment of offenders if crime is committed. To these ends all the efforts of police must be directed. The protection of life and property, the preservation of public tranquillity, and the absence of crime, will alone prove whether those efforts have been successful and whether the objects for which the police were appointed have been attained.” (Sir Richard Mayne)
Succesive governments (and senior police officers) may have lost sight of that fact but motorists (and criminals) are reaping the benefits of their oversight. Perhaps it’s time to reverse the almost terminal decline in preventative policing, not least on our roads?
- How have roads changed since the Queen’s coronation? (castlecover.co.uk)
- Government blasted on road deaths (bbc.co.uk)
- Road safety: narrow focus on casualty statistics is misleading (guardian.co.uk)
- Clear vision on road safety sought (independent.co.uk)
- The horrific facts about UK road safety from the BBC [Robert Craven] (ecademy.com)