Transport CommitteeWritten evidence from Stephen Plowden


1. Attached to this submission is a review by R F Newby of Mayer Hillman’s and my study Danger on the Road the Needless Scourge, published by Policy Studies Institute in 1984. Dr Newby was probably the leading British road safety expert of that time, so I hope this review will be taken as some indication of my competence in this area. In order to meet the Committee’s deadline, I have not tried to develop all the suggestions in this submission, but would be pleased to go into more detail if the Committee is interested.


2. The task for road safety is usually thought of simply in terms of reducing the number of crashes and casualties, especially fatal and serious ones. It is very important to recognise that crashes and casualties, grave problem though they are, are not the only consequences of danger on the road. Danger also distorts travel behaviour. Many people who would like to walk or, more especially, to cycle, are deterred from doing so. Children, and some old people too, often have to be escorted on trips which in safer conditions they could make on their own. If the escorting is done by car, this creates more danger and more congestion and pollution. Children’s play and other forms of street life are deterred. If the travel and other activities still take place, danger causes worry and anxiety to the people concerned or to others on their behalf. Social surveys since the 1970s have shown the major part that intimidation plays in the daily lives of very many people. It is more important to them than the environmental nuisances of traffic, and speeding traffic is more resented than other kinds of anti-social behaviour. Some of the evidence is reviewed in Appendix A of Simon Lister’s and my study Cars Fit for Their Purpose, published by Local Transport Today in December 2008.

3. Leaving intimidation out of account means that the importance of road safety is hugely underestimated. More than that, it can lead to a completely false impression of progress. Some people have argued that the downward trend in casualties, so far from showing that roads are becoming safer, shows that they are becoming more dangerous: people are afraid to use them as they used to and would like to. Britain’s record vis-à-vis other north European counties is also called into question. We cycle less, and almost certainly our children enjoy less independent mobility, than people in countries with comparable casualties per head of the population, so our exposure to danger is less. I hope that a report expected shortly from Policy Studies Institute comparing the extent to which children are allowed to travel on their own in different countries will be available in time to help the Committee.

Targets, Indicators and Incentives

4. Targets can be a useful way of spurring action, but they have disadvantages. If an ambitious target is not quite achieved, then what is in fact commendable progress can seem like failure. If the target is insufficiently ambitious, people may relax their efforts when it is achieved, even when there is much more that it would be worthwhile to do. The pursuit of targets can have adverse consequences for other aims and activities which, though not covered by a target, may be just as important as those that are.

5. My own view is that, at least at present, we should use a set of indicators rather then targets. The indicators must cover intimidation as well as crashes and casualties. They must be related to the responsibilities and powers of the different actors concerned with road safety. (The same, of course, is true of targets. A problem with a national target for casualty reduction, for example, is that it does not make clear what each of the many organisations concerned with road safety is supposed to do.) As well as a good set of indicators, we need to develop a more effective system of incentives.

6. It might be possible to have the same indicators for crashes and casualties both for local highway authorities and for the Highways Agency. All crashes and casualties should be included, even though more attention would be given to KSIs. Ideally, damage-only crashes should be covered too, although the feasibility and cost of doing so needs to be investigated. (Better cooperation with insurance companies would be required, and there might also be a need for large-scale social surveys).

7. The choice and design of indicators for intimidation require study; the following suggestions are examples only. For local highway authorities, indicators could include the number of people, in different gender and age groups, who do now cycle and the number who say that they would cycle if they felt it safe to do so. The proportion of children in different age groups who are allowed to travel on their own could be traced in repeated social surveys, although allowance would have to be made for other factors, such as the fear of molestation, influencing parental attitudes. Social surveys could also include questions about how many people are concerned about their own safety and that of other members of their households.

8. It has been established that anxiety about driving on motorways leads some people who, if travel time and cost were the only issues, would choose a motorway to take other, less suitable, roads instead—an action which imposes extra costs on other road users as well as on themselves. It should be possible to monitor the prevalence of such diversions, which would be a useful indicator. It may also be possible to develop objective ways of monitoring the stress of driving both on motorways and on the other roads for which the Highways Agency is responsible. Failing such objective measures, or to accompany them, social surveys could trace the development of people’s feelings about the safety and stress of driving on roads of different classes.

9. The ability to compare the performance of different local authorities with respect to road safety would be, and to an extent already is, an important aid to people wanting to put pressure on their own authority. However, other measures are needed to raise the priority put on road safety. Work is needed to put money values both on intimidation and on stress, so that these major adverse consequences of danger on the road can be included in cost-benefit analyses, which should lead to more resources being allocated to measures to reduce road danger. This would not mean more money being allocated to a road safety budget. The concept of a road safety budget scarcely makes sense, since, with some exceptions such as driver testing and road safety advertising, measures designed to improve road safety all have other important consequences as well. Lower and/or better enforced speed limits, for example, affect fuel consumption, emissions of CO2 and noise, travel times, and the number and length of motorised journeys as well as road safety. Local authority transport budgets should be allocated according to benefit/cost ratios, as either modified or reinforced by considerations, primarily social and aesthetic, not reflected in those ratios. This is likely to involve either abolishing the current distraction between capital and revenue spending, or alternatively allocating a much greater share of the total to revenue spending. It has been known for years that measures designed to make better use of existing infrastructure, including such things as road humps and speed cameras, show far higher benefit/cost ratios than investment in new infrastructure.

10. Two other suggestions that Mayer Hillman and I made in 1984 may be worth considering. One was that the NHS should be able to charge each highway authority for treating the casualties from crashes on its roads. The other was that highway authorities should be paid for reductions in casualties on their roads. The amount paid would depend on the severity of the casualty, but payment would be automatic—the highway authority would not have to demonstrate that the reduction had been brought about by its own efforts. Such payments would create an incentive for highway authorities to support initiatives at the national level, such as tougher laws on vehicle maintenance, drivers’ hours or drink-driving, which would help reduce the casualties on their roads, as well as encouraging their own activities.


11. Speed—By far the most important single measure to improve road safety would be to reduce and enforce speed limits. Lower speeds would reduce both casualties and intimidation. That would happen in two ways: motor traffic would be reduced as well as rates per vehicle mile. All the other nuisances of motor traffic would also be reduced. The only adverse effect would be to increase journey times, and even that would not always happen, or, if it did, not to the extent that a simple calculation might suggest. On congested motorways the optimal speed to preserve capacity and to minimise journey times is somewhere between 50 mph and 60 mph. Lower speeds in urban areas would usually increase journey times for motor traffic on main roads but this penalty would be at least partly offset by time savings to traffic entering or crossing the main roads from side roads and to pedestrians and cyclists. (For some evidence of this, see page 121 of Mayer Hillman’s and my study Speed Control and Transport Policy published by PSI in 1996.)

12. The motorway speed limit should be 55 mph or 60 mph, and the default limit in towns should be changed to 20 mph. For the time being, enforcement should be primarily by average-speed speed cameras, although a better way would be to fit all motor vehicles with variable speed limiters. None of these things are now likely to happen; in fact, because of Philip Hammond’s shamelessly populist move to “end the war on the motorist”, policy on speed is going in the wrong direction. (The war on the motorist never existed, and the presupposition that motorists all have the same interests and aspirations is mistaken. The world view of motorists intimidated by the behaviour of other drivers from driving on motorways differs from that of Jeremy Clarkson.) Philip Hammond instigated a review of increasing the motorway speed limit to 80 mph, and the government has dismissed the suggestion, made in a PQ from Caroline Lucas, that the review should be changed so as to address the more open question “what should the motorway speed limit be?” Changing the default urban limit to 20 mph has been rejected. Philip Hammond also stopped funding for speed cameras. He cannot, however, be blamed for withdrawing support for research on speed limiters just when it was showing very promising results, since the previous government had already done that.

13. Policy on speed is absolutely crucial to every aspect of transport policy, and I hope that the Committee will make it the subject of its next major inquiry. In the meantime, I hope that it will urge the new Secretary of State to widen the review of motorway speed limits in the way that Caroline Lucas suggested and to reinstate funding for speed cameras.

14. Motorcycles—Everyone knows that the casualty rate among motorcyclists is very high, but what is not always realised is that motorcycles are also much more dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists than cars are. They are also very noisy and polluting. All these harmful effects could be reduced, without changing the usefulness of the motorcycle as a means of transport, by limiting the power, weight and speed of the machines, fitting them with variable speed limiters, and strengthening the system of graduated driver licensing. Another suggestion, which could indeed be interpreted as limiting the mobility of motorcyclists, though only in a way justified by the gains to other road users and the environment, is that the only powered two-wheeled vehicles allowed in town centres or other areas with a high concentration of pedestrians should be ones fully compatible with pedal cycles. It is possible that some mopeds and scooters would meet this requirement, but I think it more likely that only electric, or electrically assisted, bicycles would. The previous Select Committee on Transport looked at motorcycling in 2007 and received a completely unsatisfactory reply from the Government. I hope this Committee will take up this subject again.

15. Car design—All the adverse impacts of cars including danger are higher than they need be because of the way that cars are now designed. They should be designed in accordance with the principle. No motor vehicle should cause more danger or environmental impact, or consume more non-renewable resources, than is necessary for the performance of its transport function. The interpretation of this principle was discussed in Cars Fit for Their Purpose, which also pointed out that the responsibility for the fact that cars are not now designed accordingly lies with governments rather than manufacturers. The way that cars are built affects everyone, not just their owners, but to survive, manufacturers have to please their customers, not society at large. The role of Governments in a market economy is to set and enforce rules to ensure that firms can compete for custom only in ways that respect the environment and the rights of third parties. With respect to car design, governments have failed in this duty.

16. Responsibility for regulating car design in Europe has passed from member countries to the EU. Car manufacture is an international business, and cars often cross international boundaries, so it is appropriate for car design to be regulated at the European level. But it does not follow that the EU should be the only authority concerned with vehicle regulation. In the United States, individual states are allowed to set their own standards, which, however, must be at least as stringent as those required by Federal regulations. This means that those states which want to move faster than the others, either because their problems are more severe, or because their level of environmental concern is greater, are enabled to do so. The rest of the country also benefits, since the experience of the leading states can then be used to help formulate national policy. The arguments for adopting a similar principle in the EU apply even more strongly—it is unlikely that the same regulations would be appropriate both in Sweden and in Malta. I hope that the Committee will press for the member countries to be given powers to set their own construction and use regulations, provided that, as in the US, they are allowed only to strengthen, not relax, the European ones.

17. Cars Fit for Their Purpose also pointed out that the Euro NCAP tests, intended to make new cars safer, could have the opposite effect. This is because they are concerned only with crashworthiness To make a car more crashworthy may increase the chance of its being involved in a crash in the first place, and may also increase the risk to the other party when a crash does occur. It is also possible that a high rating would encourage people to buy a heavier car then they would otherwise have chosen in order to improve their own and their passengers’ safety, even though the risk for other road users would be increased. Cars Fit for Their Purpose suggested that the risk of such anti-social consequences could be reduced by the following changes in the rules. Euro NCAP would only publish the ratings for the safety of adult occupants of those models which achieved a high rating for pedestrian safety. In car advertisements or other promotion, manufacturers would be allowed to refer to the ratings for adult occupant safety only for those models that had a high rating for pedestrian safety. It would be compulsory to state the car’s Euro NCAP rating for pedestrian safety in all advertisements, just as it is compulsory now to state its fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. I hope that the Committee will endorse these suggestions.

October 2011

Prepared 18th July 2012