Road Safety Framework

Written evidence from the Association of British Drivers (RSF 02)

Summary

· The ABD agrees with the Government’s proposal not to set new road safety targets, as they can lead to distorted priorities.

· Outcomes in terms of casualty reduction are best expressed as rates per distance travelled, so changes in traffic levels are automatically accounted for.

· Non-fatal casualty figures must be used with caution, as there is significant and varying underreporting, especially of serious injuries.

· Giving local authorities more autonomy in their road safety strategies could mean drivers facing greater inconsistency when crossing authority boundaries.

· Speed limits in particular vary considerably between local authorities and they are often set too low, based on misconceptions of their effectiveness.

· The current guidance on local speed limit setting, based on the mean (average) speed should be withdrawn. New instructions, reverting to the 85th percentile speed as its basis, should be made mandatory so that speed limits are consistent and appropriate across the country.

· Speed limits of 20 mph should only be used where the 85th percentile speed is close to this figure, or can be made so by changing the road environment. There must be no reduction in the default urban speed limit of 30 mph.

· The ABD opposes fixed penalty notices for careless driving, which is largely a subjective offence. It could lead to large numbers of FPNs being issued, with drivers intimidated from defending themselves in court due to high costs.

· There should be a ban on any revenue from driver improvement courses being used to fund enforcement activities, as this can create conflicts of interest.

· Serious incidents of careless driving should always be taken to court. Minor errors and misjudgements are best dealt with by advice from a police officer.

· The ABD is concerned about proposals to increase penalties for drivers causing serious injury by dangerous driving. Penalties should reflect the seriousness of the bad driving, not the consequences.

· Enforcement should be used to improve road safety, not generate prosecutions for their own sake or exact retribution. There should be a clear differentiation between persistent, deliberate reckless driving and occasional errors or misjudgements by normally safe drivers.

· The action plan should include the development of a national scheme of pre-driver education, along the lines of that provided by the Under-17 Car Club.


1. Introduction

1.1 The Association of British Drivers (ABD) was formed in 1992 to campaign for a better deal for Britain’s motorists. In particular, its founder members were very concerned about the increasing use of technology to enforce driving laws, which threatened to undermine the traditional ‘Three Es’ approach to road safety (Education, Engineering and Enforcement) that gave Britain the safest roads in the world.

1.2 The ABD is a voluntary organisation funded by subscriptions and donations from its members and supporters. It receives no funds from public bodies or private-sector businesses, so is truly independent. The ABD is a member of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety and the National Council of Voluntary Organisations.

1.3 Many of the ABD’s active members are from professional or managerial backgrounds, and around 40 per cent of national committee members hold advanced driving qualifications. Malcolm Heymer, who is submitting this evidence on behalf of the ABD, holds a master’s degree in Transportation Engineering and has over thirty years’ local government experience in the fields of transportation modelling, highway engineering, transport planning and traffic engineering, including road safety engineering.

1.4 Mr Heymer is willing to give oral evidence to the Transport Committee if requested.

2. Targets and outcomes

2.1 The ABD agrees with the Government that the setting of new road safety targets is unnecessary. Target setting can lead to unintended consequences by encouraging actions aimed solely at meeting a numerical figure rather than addressing the underlying issue. An example would be a target to reduce the killed and seriously injured (KSI) figure, which could lead to pressure being put on police officers attending road accidents to report an injury as slight rather than serious in marginal cases.

2.2 Casualty reduction targets have also led some local authorities to apply blanket measures, such as speed limit reductions, over wide areas in the hope that they will lead to fewer accidents, rather than targeting particular areas or classes of road user. (Studies claiming a relationship between average speeds and accident frequency are statistically flawed1,2.)

2.3 Outcomes in terms of casualty reductions are most informative when expressed as casualty rates per billion vehicle (or pedestrian) miles, so that changes in vehicle or pedestrian flow are automatically accounted for. The strategic framework acknowledges that casualty reductions occur at a faster rate during periods of low economic growth, but this is not due solely to reduced (or negative) traffic growth. The phenomenon is common to all developed countries and Canadian researcher Al Gullon attributes it to psychological changes in road users between good and bad economic times3. This seems a reasonable proposition, since the majority of accidents are due to the errors or inattention of road users. A more cautious attitude in times of economic downturn could explain the faster rate of casualty reduction.

2.4 Non-fatal casualty figures need to be treated with caution in defining outcomes, due to the divergence of police casualty figures from those of hospital admissions, especially in the case of serious injuries.

3. Decentralisation to local authorities

3.1 The ABD’s greatest concern about the strategic framework is the proposal to allow local authorities greater freedom to decide their own road safety strategies. While decentralisation is fine where policies affect only local people, the roads within a local authority area, particularly those forming main traffic routes, are not used solely by residents of that area. There needs to be a consistency of approach so that drivers crossing local authority boundaries are not subject to arbitrary changes in regulations or engineering measures.

3.2 There are already substantial inconsistencies between local authorities in different parts of the country and that situation is likely to worsen under the proposed framework. In particular, speed limit policies vary widely, with roads of similar type having speed limits that may be 10 or 20 mph lower in one county than in another, or even between districts within a county. This situation brings speed limits as a whole into disrepute, leading to widespread noncompliance. As a result, the road safety benefits of correctly set speed limits are lost.

3.3 Substantial worldwide evidence shows that, for speed limits to benefit road safety, they must be set at a level seen as reasonable by the majority of safe, responsible drivers. In practice this means setting them close to the 85th percentile speed, which is the speed that 85 percent of drivers would not wish to exceed anyway. When set at this level, a speed limit achieves the greatest voluntary compliance, which then applies a degree of peer pressure on others to conform. This results in smoother traffic flow, a lower spread of speeds, fewer conflicts between vehicles and minimum crash risk.  Conversely, when set too low, there is a high level of non-compliance, so the pressure on the less responsible to conform is lost.  There is thus a greater spread of speeds (including more very high speeds), more conflicts and greater risk of accidents.

3.4 In 2006 the previous Government replaced earlier advice on the setting of local speed limits, based on the 85th percentile principle, with advice that recommends the use of the mean (average) speed. This was a retrograde step, as it meant that speed limits set this way would criminalize many of the safest drivers, if they continued to use their skill and judgement to travel at a safe and appropriate speed. Drivers with the least accident involvement are those who travel in the 80th to 90th percentile speed range, with risk increasing sharply above the 95th percentile, but also at the bottom end of the speed range.

3.5 The 2006 guidance was a response to the widespread practice of many local authorities during the previous ten years to set speed limits below the 85th percentile level. Since the new guidance was issued, some local authorities have used it to set limits even lower, sometimes below the mean speed, which the guidance specifically warns against. In many cases they have done so against objections from the police, who realise that unrealistically low speed limits cannot be enforced.

3.6 Setting speed limits at the 85th percentile level is counterintuitive to many people, who believe, wrongly, that reduced speed limits lead to lower speeds and fewer accidents. This perception is widespread among local councillors, who are often pressurised by vociferous residents to reduce speed limits. It is imperative, therefore, that not only should the 2006 guidance be withdrawn and replaced with a reversion to the correct 85th percentile principle, but it should be made mandatory. All local authorities should be obliged to review their speed limits and reset them within, say, five years. In measuring the 85th percentile speed, it is vital that only the speeds of vehicles unimpeded by others should be taken into account.

3.7 The ABD supports the Government’s proposal to raise the motorway speed limit to 80 mph, which would align the limit with the 85th percentile speed of cars (79 mph), measured by Department of Transport surveys. This is a first welcome step in bringing speed limits back into line with the optimum level for safety. It should be followed by ensuring that local authorities follow suit on the roads for which they are responsible. The DfT rightly prescribes the traffic signs that may be used throughout the country, as it would be absurd to allow each local authority to design its own. The same should apply to speed limits. Only then would there be not only consistency across the country, but speed limits would once again command respect and have a positive effect on road safety.

3.8 The need for consistency in speed limits applies to urban as well as rural areas. While the ABD does not object to 20 mph speed limits per se, they should be applied only to roads where the 85th percentile speed is already close to that figure, or where measures can be put in place that encourage drivers to reduce their speed without the need for enforcement. Roads suitable for 20 mph limits will mainly be residential or in town centres, and will either be narrow, heavily used by pedestrians or cyclists, or where forward visibility is limited by on-street parking. Roads should be assessed individually, not on an area-wide basis. Any suggestion to reduce the default speed limit in urban areas from 30 to 20 mph should be firmly ruled out.

4. The legislative framework for road safety

4.1 The ABD opposes the introduction of a fixed penalty offence for careless driving. Unlike absolute offences, careless driving cannot be defined precisely so there will always be a measure of subjectivity, especially for incidents posing a relatively low risk. There is a danger, therefore, that fixed penalty notices might be handed out for minor errors or misjudgements, with drivers pressured into paying up rather than face a potentially expensive court appearance. If driver improvement courses were made available as an alternative to a fixed penalty, some police officers might be induced to target such minor infringements, especially if part of the revenue from the courses was ploughed back into more enforcement. This is already occurring in some areas with speed awareness courses, with income from the courses used to finance camera enforcement.

4.2 The ABD would like to see a complete ban on the use of remedial courses to finance enforcement activities, whether for speed limit or other offences. The decision to prosecute or offer a remedial course should be made on the facts of each individual case, based solely on considerations of the best way to improve future driver behaviour. Courses must not be used for revenue generation.

4.3 Incidents of careless driving that are sufficiently serious to warrant prosecution should always be taken to court. Lesser incidents involving a one-off error or misjudgement should generally be dealt with by advice from a police traffic officer. The purpose of enforcement should always be to improve road safety, not generate prosecutions for their own sake.

4.4 The ABD is also concerned about the proposal to increase the maximum prison sentence for drivers who cause serious injury by dangerous driving. Sentencing should be based on the seriousness of the bad driving rather than the result thereof. Someone who indulges in deliberate and persistent reckless driving should face severe penalties, even if, by good fortune, they do not injure anyone. Conversely, a normally safe driver who makes a single mistake or momentary lapse in concentration, resulting in serious injury, should not face a prison sentence. The law should not be used to exact retribution but to prevent accidents where possible. All human beings make mistakes sometimes, and this cannot be legislated against.

5. Sufficiency of the action plan

5.1 Most of the proposals of concern to the ABD have been covered in the previous sections. While the action plan includes some additional educational opportunities, it makes no mention of pre-driver education. The ability to use the roads safely is an essential life skill and should be taught at the earliest possible age. The Under-17 Car Club, which has been providing driver training to pre-driving age children since the 1970s, has a very successful track record. Its members have far fewer accidents and convictions when they take to the road than other young drivers4. If this sort of training were made available more widely, it could have a marked effect on casualty rates, especially among new drivers. The action plan should include development of a national scheme to provide such training.

References

1. www.abd.org.uk/onemph.htm

2. www.abd.org.uk/trl511.htm

3. A.C. Gullon, AMPS and ‘Black Boxes’. Paper presented in London, 2006.

4. http://www.under17-carclub.co.uk/nonmembers/survey2006.pdf

October 2011

Prepared 28th November 2011