1940's reminder: Second World War Jeep at Goodwood
Speeding has become a scapegoat. Myth and folklore has led to it being blamed for every accident while real causes are neglected. Police, local authorities, safety campaigners and shrill lobbyists erect flashing signals and create camera partnerships to persuade voters something is being done about safety. It is a fraud. Speed laws provide every self-righteous roundhead and fretting dirgiste with political capital.
Populist polls would restore hanging. The Mob would dance round the guillotine. It is the same with speeding. When I was a parish councillor, pushing for a 20mph speed limit through the village would have made me popular. There was always agitation about, “accidents waiting to happen.” They never did of course. The street was perfectly safe; police did checks showing nearly everybody drove well within the limit and accidents were unknown.
Where I live now is being similarly lobbied and I can see why. Enormous trucks coming through at 50mph is scary, I hate them. Yet not many accidents are caused by driving too fast. Some 57% are due to drivers, 27% to combinations of roadway and driver, 6% to combined vehicle and driver, 3% solely to roadways. Combined roadway, driver and vehicle accounts for 3%, which leaves 2% solely to vehicles. The last 1% is down to combined roadway and vehicles. The drivers’ 57% is down to inattention, bad judgement at junctions, distraction, fatigue, losing control in bad weather and other causes. Excessive speed scarcely features. The money, time and effort expended on speeders is largely wasted. It would be far better devoted to driver training and testing to IAM standards.
Speeding is not the first safety myth. In 1992 even Rospa challenged a hoary old legend.
Sunday Times: Motoring, 30 August 1992
Blaming the rise in road deaths during 1941 on the blackout is wrong, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA). New research shows it was fewer traffic police and a withdrawal of safety propaganda that led to 9,169 fatalities on British roads in the second year of war.
The historian A D Harvey claims in the current issue of ROSPA's magazine Care on the Road, that the casualty rate slowed in 1942 and 1943, when the black-out with its dimly-lit streets and hooded headlights was still in force.
Harvey's research reveals that the only changes were more policing, and better safety propaganda. Similar remedies applied now could have telling effects.
The carnage of the 1930s, with over 7,000 deaths a year led to the introduction of The Highway Code, but even this failed to stem the destruction. In desperation the Minister of Transport Leslie Hore-Belisha, imposed the 30mph speed limit, set up pedestrian crossings, and brought in the driving test.
Fatal casualties reached a peacetime peak of 7,343 in 1934, before Hore-Belisha's Road Traffic Act checked the rise. There were 6,648 fatal accidents on British roads in 1938. But after the street lights were switched off in September 1939, the toll rose dramatically. The total for the year was 8,272. Newspapers complained during the 'phoney war' that the blackout was killing more civilians than the enemy.
The Birmingham Post blamed drivers' exasperation at the absence of road direction signs, which had been painted over or taken down to confuse invaders. The Manchester Guardian's explanation for so many accidents was, 'the psychological effect of living dangerously,' in war-time. The Home Office took this to mean, 'War-dangers have caused road-dangers to be taken lightly.' Among other explanations was the inexperience of service drivers. Yet military vehicles did not show up as the culprits.
Pedestrians suffered worst in the early months of the black-out, but by 1941 they were keeping well out of the way.
The slaughter prompted a conference at the Home Office in 1941. The Home Office took the view that the biggest single cause was diminished police supervision, a conviction shared by chief constables. Young policemen had been called up, and those left were busy enforcing black-out regulations and taking part in civil defence.
'The Police War Reserve has not the same interest as the regular police,' according to the chief constable of Manchester. There was a failure to prepare the reservists for traffic policing, and road safety publicity campaigns, developed in the 1930s were run down.
The chief constable of Lancashire complained that, 'The instructions to school children which had largely fallen off during the war were worth continuing'.
Following the conference, policing was stricter, and road safety publicity was revived. The result was a reduction in the number of deaths in 1942 to 6,926, and in 1943 to 5,796. The figure continued downwards to its peace-time low point of 4,513 in 1948.
The toll increased again in the 1960s, but the trend is now downwards. Despite huge increases in traffic, speed, and annual mileage, road deaths last year were once again at the 1948 level, at 4,520.
That was 1992. By last year road deaths in the UK were less than half that, at 2,222 following road improvements, better cars with better handling, roadholding, steering, brakes, seatbelts, airbags, better visibility and better driving. More motorways have reduced casualties, drink-driving has diminished. It is not because of what we are paying to speed cameras. We are driving every bit as fast as we were in 1992.