TAPAS.network | 6 February 2023 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Time to redefine ‘road safety’?

Peter Stonham

THE ANIVERSARY of the introduction of compulsory seatbelt wearing 40 years ago usefully prompts some reflections on the changing perceptions and priorities relating to what has traditionally been known as ‘road safety’. As does the fact that a significantly amended version of the Highway Code, introducing the concept of a road user hierarchy of responsibility for the first time, was issued a year ago, as explored in a contribution to this issue from Tom Cohen.

For a considerable period during the middle and latter part of the 20th century, the major concern in the road use field was with the safety implications of motorised moving vehicles, and their ability to do damage to both their occupants and anyone who got in their way. Both Highway and vehicle design, and road user behaviour, and their impacts on safety, were seen as the key matters of public interest, with a dominant concern for both the vehicle drivers and passengers, and anyone potentially at risk of being struck by a large lump of moving metal. The seatbelt legislation was very much part of that perspective.

As important as it was, perhaps we should now accept that this was a very partial take on things, and just a step on an historical journey.

Prior to the arrival of the internal combustion engine, mediating between the majority of travellers on foot and on horseback, and those lucky enough to be in wheeled carriages, seems to have been more art than science. The emphasis was on road users reacting individually to situations to achieve necessary personal protection, rather than any prescribed rules of the road or legal requirements and penalties.

The invention and adoption of the powered motorcar some 150 years ago was, at first, seen as something to control in the interest of both humans and animals – including the short-lived Red Flag Act, which initially dealt with steam-powered vehicles ahead of the arrival of the internal combustion engine, later in the 19th century.

The Locomotive Acts (or Red Flag Acts) were a series of Acts of Parliament regulating the use of mechanically propelled vehicles on British public highways during the latter part of the 19th century. The first three – in 1861, 1865 and 1878 – contained restrictive measures on the manning and speed of operation of road vehicles. They also formalised many important road concepts such as vehicle registration, registration plates, speed limits, maximum vehicle weight over structures such as bridges, and the organisation of highway authorities.

The most strict restrictions and speed limits were imposed by the 1865 act (the ‘Red Flag Act’), which required all ‘road locomotives’, including automobiles, to travel at a maximum of 4mph in the country and 2mph in the city, as well as requiring a man carrying a red flag to walk in front of road vehicles hauling multiple wagons. The 1896 Act removed some restrictions of the 1865 act and raised the speed to14 mph. The Locomotives on Highways Act 1896 also provided legislation that allowed the emerging automotive industry to develop soon after the unveiling of the first practical automobile in 1894.

As mobility expanded, and the motor vehicle progressively became the predominant mode of travel for significant numbers of personal journeys during the 20th century, the supervisory and governance system adjusted accordingly.

The Departmental Committee on the Regulation of Motor Vehicles had announced in 1920 that “a compulsory and uniform code of signals for all road vehicles is to be brought into operation”. Drivers in London had evolved a way of signalling their intentions to turn right or stop, using their arm, and this was seen to be of such benefit that it should be required and standardised as a code of behaviour across the country. The code allowed the driver to use either their own arm or a dummy arm – which had obvious benefits in wet weather for drivers with the luxury of an enclosed cab, or for drivers using left-hand-drive vehicles, as in imported American cars. The code was also to embrace the signals made by policemen controlling junctions.

In 1923 a booklet costing one penny was approved by the Home Office and published by the Stationery Office. Entitled Traffic Signals to be used by the Police and Drivers of Vehicles, this booklet arose from discussions between the Police and The Automobile Association. In subsequent years, in addition to being promoted by the automobile associations, the code was publicised using posters by the National Safety First Association (subsequently renamed the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in 1936).

The formal introduction of The Highway Code as we now know it was one of the provisions of the wide-reaching Road Traffic Act 1930. Also costing one penny, the first edition of the code was published on 14 April 1931. It contained just 21 pages of advice, including the arm signals to be given by drivers and police officers controlling traffic. The second edition, considerably expanded, appeared in 1934, and illustrated road signs for the first time. During its preparation the Ministry of Transport consulted with the Pedestrians’ Association as well as the AA.

For more than 90 years now the objective of the Highway Code has been to provide a set of information, advice, guides and mandatory rules in the interests of road safety as applied to all road users including pedestrians, horse riders and cyclists, as well as motorcyclists and car, truck and bus drivers. To this end it has given information on road signs, road markings, vehicle markings, and road safety and how drivers should control their vehicles and behave more generally. Annexes have progressively expanded into parking, speed cameras, licence requirements, documentation, penalties, vehicle security and other matters.

A whole social, public policy, and professional framework has meanwhile emerged embracing automotive and traffic engineering, insurance, healthcare, policing and the emergency services, not to mention legislation and penalties for various kinds of misbehaviour or liabilities, all principally focussed on facilitating the needs of the car, whilst managing some of its physical impacts.

Updated regularly, the 17th edition of the Highway Code in 2022 did introduce some significant changes. In particular, a new “hierarchy of road users” classifies road users according to their risk in the event of a collision, with the most vulnerable at the top of the list for protection. The new edition also included some additional text in the introduction about sustainability, noting that: “The aim of The Highway Code is to promote safety on the road, whilst also supporting a healthy, sustainable and efficient transport system.”

Despite these enhancements we are, however, in many ways still locked into the mid-20th century way of ‘engineering and driver behaviour’ thinking about road safety – when we might usefully look much more forensically about how the motor vehicle should really fit into life today. As well as the traditional meaning of safety, this might well also embrace issues of sustainability, an equitable balance of access to mobility and the external effects of vehicles. It might also consider a more liveable safe and pleasant environment where cars are put in their proper place – which is not wherever they want to go, but where they are relevant, appropriate and acceptable.

What the law says in terms of priorities and behaviour, penalties and punishment has been gradually changing, though arguably not extensively and comprehensively enough. Certainly a massive redesign of the legal regime for vehicle use will be required if autonomous vehicles are genuinely going to make a contribution to future mobility. Ambitions and aspirations in that direction so far look more like a solution looking for a problem than a breakthrough in travel capability, though perhaps a role is more clearly emerging for intelligently-operated buses and trucks, as the new Government-supported pilot project programme we report in this issue explores.

A big remaining issue for proper definition in the ‘road use’ equation is the appropriate nature of road transport infrastructure. This applies to both its specification, design and operational control to suit a more thoughtful and balanced approach to meeting society’s travel needs – and a sustainable role for road transport in our stewardship of the planet and our own well-being.

Key issues such as the allocation and use of streetspace – including the kerbside – the facilitation and promotion of active travel, dealing with the noxious emissions of vehicles, and addressing the potential deployment of autonomous vehicles are all matters that should define a new context for ‘road safety’. Embracing the fair protection of the rights of all citizens beyond the immediate context of simply avoiding unwelcome interactions between hard vehicles and soft people.

In this ever widening context, individual elements of the road safety equation now surely need to be seen very differently from the past, with the centrality of the moving vehicle and traffic collisions replaced by something much more extensive and inclusive.
The words ‘road safety’ and indeed ‘Highway Code’ do not now seem to be sufficiently comprehensive to address our current needs.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT862, 6 February 2023.

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