Dep-O Magazine

20:20 Vision – The Politics of Speed

Simon Charlesworth September 6, 2012 2 Comments on 20:20 Vision – The Politics of Speed

20mph limits - the facts just don't add upWhen my home town, Bristol, recently decided to adopt a blanket 20mph speed limit, this tweaked my curiosity.

As a journalist and avowed cynic – plus being a relatively rounded individual who naturally despises the pointless divisiveness of party politics – I wanted to know from where this came and why.

I was initially surprised that this was welcomed with almost universal acceptance from the city’s various big knobs – be they the jostling mayoral candidates or the local newspaper.

I must also confess, that as an enthusiastic motorist, I was somewhat irked by yet another bitter chunk of anti-car legislation being rammed down my throat. Still, if the facts speak for themselves, well, who was I to argue?

Troublingly, instead of finding unassailable, cast iron facts, I have found something else. Given that nature abhors a vacuum, where I found little or no factual logic, I instead came across the unmistakable, foul-breathed stench of political rhetoric…

I won’t repeat myself about the ‘speed kills’ delusion, for I have moaned thus before – but for the sake of brevity and to save you clicking off – it’s all about presentation and spin. Every car accident – providing the car is moving – has speed as a contributing factor, because cars move and measured movement is speed. It’s like saying 100% of aircraft crashes are the fault of gravity.

Having your eyes glued to the speedo does not make you a good driver, it makes you a dangerous one due to low awareness and anticipation.

Conveniently, for the Government’s sake, this campaign to hack the speed limit also has the appearance of paying lip-service to the EU’s stated desire to stop all deaths on EU roads by 2050. (Yes, you did read that right!)

Anyway, delving into the various press releases from ‘road safety’ campaigning people, and quickly, the lack of fact becomes evident. Some even quoted Speed is not the issue - unpoliced dangerous driving isthemselves as a statistical source and there’s plenty of vague soap-boxing about all sort of grand political ideals.

Some even stated that the 20mph limit is the most significant ‘driver of social progress’ and used extremely emotive language – for example: ‘Because people care about their children, they’re imprisoning their children and not letting them out to go around to their friends, because they’re afraid of them being killed. And it’s a very rational fear because when you’ve got a ton of metal and steel, moving along at 30mph you basically have a whole series of killing machines circling your house all the time…’

Hell’s teeth! Since when has addressing the lack of social mobility in Britain become the responsibility of its road transport infrastructure?

I can understand why people would want to revert to an era when children played in the street. When there were fewer people who needed fewer cars. Yet there is another reason parents don’t allow their children to do so now; it’s the fear of abduction – the twisted repulsive legacy of Hindley and Brady, the Wests et al.

Back to the figures, and according to the Department For Transport’s Reported Road Casualties Great Britain: Main Results 2011 against a backdrop of a 3% increase in fatal road accidents (up to 1901 from 2010’s 1850), the number of child fatalities – those aged 15 and under – has fallen by 4% with child injuries decreasing by 0.5%

See here:

Another bunch included the footnote: ‘An extensive review of relevant literature has been made, and evidence from 98 studies containing 460 estimates of the relationship between changes in speed and changes in the number of accidents or accident victims has been synthesized by means of meta-analysis…’

Adopt the cynical interpretation and this could be read as a Norwegian educated guess from 2006 based on just 98 studies. Compare that with figures from London’s Metropolitan Police who (from 2007-2010) had to deal with 12,649 accidents of varying severity.

The case for lower 20mph limits is a black and white issue - it's misleadingElsewhere I found a claim that: ‘More than half of road deaths and serious injuries occur on roads with 30 mph limits’. Yet what they fail to reveal is that according to Reported Road Casualties Great Britain: Main Results 2011 built-up areas with 20mph limits have the highest increase in fatal (17% increase), serious (35% increase) and slight accidents (23% increase). All of which damages their claims that 20mph limits lead to safer roads.

Of course, this begs the question why? Could it be that people having swallowed the indoctrination and, believing that such a low speed is undeniably safe, then switch off? It is, after all, hard to concentrate at such a lethargic crawl. Next time you see someone driving an electric golf buggy, just watch at how little they concentrate on the act of driving. This dangerous complacency is exactly because their low speed is deemed as unchallenging and beneath contempt.

Interestingly enough, this same DfT source – available via the Office Of Statistics – also states that 50mph rural roads have also seen the greatest increase in fatal (19%) and serious (12%) accidents, whilst 70mph rural roads have experienced a 2% reduction in fatal accidents and a 7% reduction in serious accidents. Even 60mph roads, perform better with 0% change in fatalities and a 3% reduction in serious accidents. Yet we seldom hear such stats quoted in the case for blanket 40mph rural speed limits.

I find these figures remarkable, because whenever I drive around Britain – which is frequently in the course of my job – I’m often disgusted at how poorly our roads are maintained. Particularly rural roads which seldom have: properly maintained tarmac; clean, reflecting surfaces on chevron signs (too much mildew or are just overgrown); let alone a full complement of road studs. Ideally, they should be of the original Percy Shaw designed Reflecting Roadstuds Ltd ‘Catseye’ variety because they shine brilliantly at night and do seem to last longer than newer alternatives.

Of course, the big haymaker these people deliver is the reduction in braking distances when comparing 30mph with 20mph – surely this will quickly silence my inner doubting Thomas? Sadly, no.

The popular factoid is that at 20mph your stopping distance is 39 feet and at 30mph it’s 75 feet – it comes from The Highway Code and would appear to be as30mph braking distances are out of date and misleading solid and upstanding as the Bank of England in Mary Poppins. However, dig into the governmental machine’s archives and you’ll find that braking distances were first quoted in the Third Edition of The Highway Code. Horrifyingly, they are the same today despite the Third Edition being published in 1946.

You can imagine the difference today, following 66 years of engineering research and development into the design of tyres, wheels, brakes, suspension layouts and passive safety systems – and that’s without looking into the improvements in road infrastructure or surface treatments either.

So off I went delving through the dust and chaos of my old car magazines. To be fair and representative of 2012 traffic, I went for the 10 year + vintage, and I fished out road tests with braking distances. These were conducted in a range of conditions (both wet and dry) and I opted for diesel hatchbacks and saloons because of their heavier drivetrains – and performance cars would have corrupted the results and made a joke of the comparison.

After flicking through numerous issues and using my best schoolboy mathematics, I came up with an average braking distance figure for 30mph of 30.1 feet. So if these lobbyists really want to see braking distances of 39 feet, then they need do nothing, and Bristol alone would save an estimated £2.3million of central government funding on new signage and red tape.

Ultimately, it is all too easy to pull the case for 20mph to pieces. If the Government really wanted to do something about road safety it should make the driving test far more discriminatory (three attempts and you’re out), make driving instructors include car control over all manner of road conditions, improve pedestrian education, make cyclists pass a basic competency test to qualify for compulsory insurance and registration, there should be a proper visible road policing presence and it should make every learner road-user visit the local Coroner’s Court for a session.

Targeting speeding is a cheaper alternative to real road safety issuesI will never forget, as a student, shadowing a local reporter. We saw the fatal case of a woman who couldn’t respond in time to a child dashing out in front of her car. She was sobbing uncontrollably. She was distraught. It was horrible to see, but you can’t get a more graphic illustration of the importance of real road safety than experiencing consequences as harrowing as that. As an advocate of common sense, road safety is too important to be left to politics.

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