Transport CommitteeWritten evidence from NECTAR

1. This response comes from NECTAR (the North-East Combined Transport activists’ Roundtable). NECTAR is an open, voluntary, umbrella body, established to provide a forum in which the many organisations with an interest in sustainable transport in all its forms can develop a co-ordinated view on contemporary transport issues.

2. At the outset, we note that the May 2011 publication, Strategic Framework for Road Safety, is far more wide-ranging than the Post-Legislative Assessment of the Road Safety Act, 2006. So, although our submission mainly comments on the issues raised by the Committee, we also look briefly at other matters concerning road safety, which are equally, if not more, deserving of consideration, and hence of informed comment, here.

3. Call for evidence: NECTAR has taken the liberty of slightly re-arranging the issues which the Committee will examine, as shown below:

(i) (a)Whether the Government is right not to set road safety targets, and

(b)whether its outcomes framework is appropriate.

(ii)How the decentralisation to local authorities of funding and the setting of priorities will work in practice and contribute towards fulfilling the Government’s vision.

(iii) (a)Whether the Government is right to argue that, for the most part, the right legislative framework for road safety is in place, and,

(b)in particular, whether the Road Safety Act 2006 has fulfilled its objectives (see Post-Legislative Assessment of the Road Safety Act 2006, Cm 8141, published by the DfT, July 2011).

(iv)Whether the measures set out in the action plan are workable and efficient.

(v)The relationship between the Government’s strategy and EU road safety initiatives.

4. NECTAR Members have found numerous reasons for concern over the way the Government seems to look at Road Safety, not least arising from the suggestion that motorway speed limits might increase from 70 mph to 80 mph. So, before we reply to the Committee’s issues listed above, we emphasise two basic points:

(a)that the term “Road Safety” is in itself ambiguous, according to whether it refers either the condition of road surfaces themselves, or to the risks imposed on all who make use of roads of any kind, regardless of its standard of maintenance: and

(b)that the perception of “Road Safety” exists as much in the eyes of the road-user, in his/her many different forms, as in any recorded statistics, official or otherwise.

5. For the purposes of this reply, we assume that the “perception of ‘Road Safety’” (4b) is intended throughout, and comment accordingly. The effect of a 20 mph speed limit on pedestrians and cyclists differs greatly from that on car, lorry, or bus-drivers. The level of traffic on any road varies from time to time: safety for those crossing it, or cycling along it, will vary to match. What seems safe on a dual carriageway is vastly different from what seems safe on a narrow country lane, and differs again from safety on an urban main road, or in a residential street. Here, again, it matters greatly whether it is a cul-de-sac, a through road among many others in a housing estate, or—intentionally or not—a rat-run for longer-distance car or van drivers. And that is before taking into account the unrecorded features of road use at all levels—illegal pavement parking, pavement cycling, infringement of rules on bus lanes, excessive speed, and more besides.

6. The Executive Summary of the May 2011 Framework omits at least four important issues, and includes one totally unacceptable claim. The omissions are:

(i)present casualty figures, ie injuries or deaths related to road use. These may, in fact, be low by comparison with those in other countries, and they may well represent reduced totals over recent years. But their absence conceals the fact that a death-toll of 1,850+ per annum is frankly outrageous, especially compared with the tiny equivalents on the UK’s rail system, where just one passenger death, in 2007’s Grayrigg derailment, is now the subject of an exhaustive Inquest (and it is worth adding that there have been no rail passenger deaths since);

(ii)the rôle of public transport as a factor in improving road safety (cf §§3, 4, 8);

(iii)the possibility that young people in particular might in future prefer not to become motorists, or may simply be unable to afford a car even if they want one (cf. the whole section of §11 entitled ”Education—Developing Skills and Attitudes”, pp 9–10 of the Summary); and

(iv)defining the term “deprived” when talking about risks to children from road conditions in their area (§15). Even if there exists an agreed “definition” in government circles and among road safety pundits, it is not the only one possible, and perceptions of “deprivation” must be expected to differ accordingly.

The totally unacceptable claim occurs at §7 of the Summary, which talks entirely about the need to save money regardless. In the context of road safety, it is in our view far more important to save lives and reduce injuries.

7. Responses to the Committee’s Issues

(i) (a) In one crucial respect, which we take up again under Issue ii, we think the Government totally wrong. Targets as such may smack of box-ticking, and persuading injured road-users not to record their injury, but (cf item (ii) above) we consider that, as often in continental Europe, development of better public transport should be part of a general target to reduce motorised traffic overall, thereby reducing risk of accidents, as far as is humanly possible.

(i) (b) Insofar as §17, on “Road Safety Outcomes”, talks of reductions in annual death figures to 1,770 by 2020, we must declare that the framework is totally inappropriate. An acceptable outcome on the nation’s roads is Injuries, nil: Deaths, nil. However utopian this may seem, it is only applying to the roads the same expectation that the country imposes on its railways and its airlines. There is a lot more to Road Safety than the annual death toll. Some of the reasons for Britain’s comparatively favourable ranking here are that our roads discourage any but the most intrepid pedestrians and cyclists from using them. We remind the Committee that, except for designated motorways, every road in this country is provided for the whole community, not just for those driving cars or lorries. This applies especially to roads without pavements. We all, through council tax and the like, pay our share towards the upkeep of our highways, and hence have legitimate right to use them without fear of injury, never mind death, whether we do so by car, by cycle or on foot. Even those running driving-school courses emphasise to their clients that a driving licence is not a licence to injure others.

Viewed in this light, the UK’s road safety record is not impressive. Statistics do not show this, but road non-users include children whose parents, concerned for their well-being, keep them off roads and pavements by always driving them to and from schools, friends’ homes, sports grounds and so on. Likewise, such children are discouraged from going by bus (on their own, hence perceived to be in danger), even into their teens, in some cases. Fewer people cycle than might wish to: in an increasing number of areas, pavements have been divided to include cycle paths, but, elsewhere, many cyclists use “un-divided” pavements, illegally, rather than risking injury by going on the road. This, in turn, reduces the safety of pedestrians—who, frankly, cannot be expected to be always turning around to see if a cyclist is hurtling along to overtake them. Such pavement use is bad enough in daylight: it becomes worse still when, during the hours of darkness, a minority of such cyclists forgets to switch any lights on. Other causes of danger on pavements stem from increasing use of headphones and/or mobile phones by pedestrians, and—in a separate but probably increasing category—from mobility scooters, wheelchairs, and indeed from prams and pushchairs, users of all of which have full right to be where they are. We mention them mainly as a general indication that legislation—at local if not at national level—might be considered of benefit, and not just for pavement-use. (More could and should be done also to encourage cyclists to ride in greater safety—we expand on this in the 2nd paragraph of our comments on Issue v, below.)

(ii) In sum, extremely badly, mainly because funding of local authorities has been seriously reduced, and is likely to diminish rather than increase. However, in one important area, leaving enforcement to local authorities, no matter how well-financed they become, could lead to anomalies: impacts caused by vehicles travelling at 20mph, though serious, are not nearly as grave as those at 30mph (and so on, upwards). Leaving the fixing and enforcement of speed-limits to local authorities could result in wide divergence of driving, cycling and walking risks between adjacent local authority areas, affecting safety.

At the other end of the speed range, motorways should retain, if not reduce, their present 70 mph maximum, to minimise casualties, which are likely to be far more serious at this speed. This is why we are disheartened to see that the government has, in all seriousness, suggested that 70 mph is too low a limit for modern conditions, and that 80 mph should be allowed. We can do no better than quote Christian Wolmar on this [Rail issue 681]:

“.....The benefits of increasing the speed limit [to 80 mph] were found to be reduced journey-times of 4.1 minutes per hour, though they assumed that everyone currently obeys the speed limit.... On the down side, there would be extra emissions...as well as extra casualties amounting to 18 deaths per year, plus 64 serious injuries and 363 minor ones. Nevertheless, … the effect of the extra deaths—calculated at £5 million each—will be outweighed by all those four minutes per hour saved by the survivors …

“If Hammond had got up and said ‘I am going to cause an extra 18 deaths on the motorways every year’, I suspect he might not have got much applause....”

Later in the same article, Wolmar continues:

“There is an implicit implication in the decision [to increase the limit] that suggests Britain’s roads have become a bit too safe. There has been a stunning reduction, with deaths being cut … last year’s total was a historic low of just 1,857 … However, instead of trying to work towards a zero death rate, as they are in Scandinavia, the DfT is actually suggesting that the roads should become more dangerous again. It argues that, since vehicles have become safer thanks to technological advances... the government feels it is now time to look again at whether the speed limit set in 1965 is still appropriate.”

Many conclusions could be drawn from this exposé of current DfT thinking, but we point out now that it indicates clearly that, in any policy discussions, the motorist has absolute priority over everybody and everything else—air quality included. In our view, this is utterly to be deplored.

(iii) (a) If, by “the right legislative framework for road safety”, the government means “the Strategic Framework for Road Safety” published in May this year, we have to say a firm No. We have detailed the main omissions already, and commented on Omission (i) as part of our reply to Issue i above. On Omission (ii), we add:

(iv) Public transport is, in itself, under threat in many important respects, thanks to government spending cuts, drastic in their own right, and augmented, in effect, by the recently-imposed freeze on increases to council tax. Even before that freeze was announced, local authorities were having, often reluctantly, to reduce or even totally remove revenue support for bus services in their area that the operators would not find “profitable”, and this has meant that, even in densely-popuated urban areas, evenings and Sundays have become virtually bus free. [See now the Guardian, 26 October, p 36, article by Iain Malcolm, of South Tyneside council, on the iniquities of government funding reduction for local authorities.] The consequences for road use, and hence for road safety statistics, have yet to emerge, but they are unlikely to see reduced casualty figures. Still less with they lead to reduced carbon and other emissions. We find this development unacceptable.

Matters might not be so bad if alternative public transport, rail-borne for instance, ran in place of the buses, but the recent history of local authority efforts to build tramway or trolleybus networks consists mainly of rejections by the DfT of their carefully-worked-out proposals. Continental Europe, meanwhile, moves ever onwards in its development of successful and environmentally beneficial rail-based transport, secure in the knowledge that road safety will improve noticeably in the process.

(v) (b) This is even more detailed and specialised, confining itself to enforcement of penalties on motorists, rather than looking at their wider implications for greater road safety as such. Other than giving our general support for any successful enforcement of rules, especially relating to drivers who have drunk to excess, we have no comment that we may usefully offer here.

(vi) “Workable”? We, again, cannot usefully answer. “Efficient”, on the other hand, depends on definitions which have not been supplied, but we emphasise once more that the perceptions of “safety” differ according to those defining them. Pedestrians, waiting for excessive lengths of time at pelican crossings and then being given about 30 seconds to scamper across a dual carriageway, are hardly likely to deem such crossings “efficient”, especially when compared with zebra crossings. Motorists may well take a different view. Yet, once again, this implies a hierarchy of road users, with motorists firmly at its head. Too many youngsters, as a result, grow up convinced that travel is by car, and that no other method can be imagined. In the short term, safety figures may improve as a result, but—with fewer young people able to afford a bus fare, never mind their own transport—the social consequences in the years to come could be grim.

(vii) NECTAR has limited experience from which to formulate a view on this Issue, though our earlier remarks on the greater part played by public transport in continental urban transport have relevance here as well. To these we would add (“omission” iv) that, although official definitions of the term “deprived” relating to children vary according to numerous criteria, every child in this country may be fairly described as such, insofar as provision of public transport—their only real way to achieve independence and live their own lives in their hours of leisure—is either sparse, non-existent, excessively expensive in fares, or any combination of these. As long as the UK is Europe’s odd man out, treating public transport as a subsidised but profit-making enterprise, rather than as a subsidised vital social service, all our young people, especially those of secondary school age, will continue in this universally-deprived state, no matter where they live.

Akin to this “odd-man-out” attitude over the operation of public transport, we draw attention to a similar contrast between the UK’s treatment of cycling with the norm in several EU countries. These countries recognise, and we support the idea of, cycling as an environmentally-friendly way of making journeys for work and/or pleasure, to the extent of encouraging workplaces to provide changing-facilities for cyclists, and racks for their cycles, just as they provide car-parks. Yes, a good many UK employers are enlightened enough to encourage cycling in similar ways, and we gladly support them. The UK in general, however, has few designated cycle-tracks and cycle-routes, and some of these routes stop and start almost at random in places. The low proportion of journeys made by bicycle in the UK (2%, compared with 26% in the Netherlands, in 2006) tells its own sad story, but we remind the committee of it nonetheless. Increasing this proportion has a potentially enormous part to play in increasing the safety of the UK’s road system—and our pavements, for that matter!—as well as benefiting the whole quality of life in the UK. Cycling is more likely to lead to better health for those that cycle, and, indirectly, to benefit non-cyclists by the part it plays in cutting the overall level of carbon emissions, especially, but by no means only, in busy urban areas.

We add another point that will become more relevant, and potentially more problematical, as the years go by, unless the UK’s attitude to the financing of public transport is altered radically. This concerns elderly motorists. As matters now stand, many parts of the country do just about retain enough of a public transport network, plus a nationally-funded free travel entitlement, to attract such motorists out of their cars for the majority of the week. Should the current trends of decline go much further, however, such older inhabitants may find it harder to resist the need to use cars—and, of course, the more rural their homes, the more likely this is. The threats to safety that this would pose are as real as they are saddening, even if at present it is difficult to quantify them. But, given the nation’s age profile, this problem is not going to go away if present transport policies continue.

Additional Comments

8. It must never be forgotten, either, that—unlike on rail tracks in normal conditions—a driver of a car or a rider of any sort of cycle poses a threat to more than just him/herself if his/her technique wavers from perfection. Even on the most isolated country road, where a driver apparently has a clear run, pedestrians are entitled to walk if they wish—without being threatened, or worse, by an irresponsible fellow road-user. It is also worth remembering that, even if a road fatality harms only the car driver directly, this loss is bound to affect the dead person’s family as well, and avoids affecting others only by chance.

9. This is as good a point as any at which to conclude, by stating that there is no “one-size-fits-all” definition of Road Safety, any more than there is a common perception among every different kind of user of what is or is not safe on a public road. We urge the Committee to extend its remit to include this vital proviso, when trying to decide where current legislation on this topic does or does not need strengthening, changing, or better enforcement, so that all may benefit from improved road conditions, not just the motorist at everyone else’s expense.

October 2011

Prepared 18th July 2012