On most things to do with street design and road-user relationships, Ben Hamilton-Baillie and I are of one mind, but we diverge on one point. He says street design alone can achieve the desired behaviour change – from war to peace, intolerance to civility – however you like to phrase it. A clash the other day between me on foot and a driver illustrates my call for a change in the rules of the road to precede or at least accompany changes in street design. It was at the entrance to a supermarket car park. The driver was coming out; I was walking across the gap between the pavements. I was there marginally first, so didn’t break my stride. He drove on, forcing me to stop, so I slapped his side window with the palm of my hand. He stopped in the middle of the road, remonstrating with me for hitting his car. I stood my ground, saying he was an oaf for not giving way. Jaw jutting forward, he got out and came at me. I said, “Are you going to hit me?” Meanwhile, traffic had stopped, bystanders were gaping, a bus was making a big deal of passing the obstruction … He said, “No, but you shouldn’t hit my car,” and backed off. As I often say in such situations, I said he was in the wrong, but I blamed him less than I blame the rules of the road which promote intimidation and neglect of vulnerable road-users. DfT, Jesse Norman, et al, take note.
This woman, a talented musician, was attacked outside her home. She was crossing the road with her child, when she was hit by a car. She managed to push the child to safety. She needed 21 stitches in her head. Would this “accident” have happened if equality, not priority, was the basic rule of the road, and if the onus for road safety was on the driver instead of the pedestrian? Not in a million years.
A government paper announces funding for local authorities to ‘tackle air pollution’. One of its grotesquely overdue measures is to ‘adjust traffic signals to cut congestion’. So the paper is an open admission that traffic lights contribute to 40,000 premature deaths a year from poor air quality. How overdue are these proposals? Half a century ago, when I started driving, it was blindingly obvious that woeful timing of traffic lights at Knightsbridge, for example, caused permanent congestion. It’s identical today: hardly any green time for traffic heading to the West End. Ministers and the DfT miss an equally vital point: traffic lights – symbols of the dysfunctional system of priority – help cause 24,000 casualties a year from “accidents”. I’ve had replies from the DfT claiming priority is necessary because it lays down clear rules. Its support for its own lethal system reveals the pitiful depths of its ignorance and negligence.
Last year there were 240 deaths from drink driving. Richard Allsop of the RAC Foundation estimates there would be 25 fewer deaths if the drink-drive limit were cut from .08 to .05. The story made the news, but the numbers are negligible compared with the casualties caused by the lethal rule of priority, which never make the news (despite my efforts). Those “accidents” are routinely attributed to driver error – a travesty of the truth.
It’s well-known that dirty urban air causes lung, heart and developmental damage, but increasingly it’s being linked to brain damage. The Times didn’t break the news but covered it on 19 September under the front page headline, “Dementia soars in areas hit by pollution”. Countless cases of dementia could be avoided by cutting air pollution from traffic. Because most of it, through a trick of chemistry, is invisible, governments get away with inaction which amounts to manslaughter.
Report here. To blame for this road death, of course, is the malign system of priority. Once again, of course, the perpetrators of the system will get away with what amounts to manslaughter. The onus for road safety should be on the driver or rider, not the walker. It’s another example of traffic lights failing to make roads safe. Why do they fail? Because they fail to treat the underlying cause of danger on the road: priority. And they flout the fundamental principle of road safety: to watch the road.
Last week I saw a woman with two toddlers trying to cross Portland Road at the east end of Ilfracombe High St. For a full two minutes, a stream of drivers ignored them, including a district councillor I know but maybe shouldn’t name here. Where is their common decency? As soon as I was able to get out of Hostle Park Road, I blocked further traffic and waved the woman across.
On one level, the neglect of other road-users is due to ignorance on the part of drivers — they don’t bat an eye when stopping at lights, or waiting for priority traffic to clear a junction. But unless there’s a pedestrian crossing or traffic light, they are oblivious to people on foot. Primarily, the neglect is due to the system for teaching neglect. As I’ve said before, the system is anathema to civilised values.
Today’s Guardian led with a piece about a comprehensive Chinese study which shows that air pollution (already implicated in 7 million premature deaths a year worldwide) damages intelligence and cognitive function, not just in foetuses and children, but in adults, especially those over 64. Equality Streets offers a low-cost, low-risk way of making an immediate difference. Without signals causing stops, restarts and needless delay, traffic can move gently and merge at low revs, cutting emissions dramatically.
Chief Constable Anthony Bangham of West Mercia Police, national head of roads policing, proposes penalising drivers for exceeding the speed limit by 1mph. “We are proud to be law enforcers,” he says. He seems to embody the dangerous banality of roads policy. Instead of teaching people to drive by context, the system teaches us to drive by numbers. If you’re doing 20 or 30 in a built-up area, you can hit a child with impunity. But on the open road, if you choose your own speed and cause no danger, you’re guilty, even though you’re innocent. If the law is an ass, nowhere is it more asinine than on the roads. As regards roads policy, the authorities are stuck in the dark ages. Today’s story. Earlier Telegraph report, which I missed at the time.