More Road Deaths

We moved from being a horse-drawn economy to one dependent on motorised vehicles in a relatively short time, and it was a change that took place without a great deal of thinking about road safety. One of my grandfathers, whose main business had been building horse-drawn vehicles, died in the 1930s after his horse-drawn trap turned into the driveway of his house in front of an oncoming car, whose driver had seen him but said at the inquest he was unable to stop in time to prevent the collision. The pace of life had speeded up considerably but brakes and perceptions had not kept pace.

Almost 30 years later, as a sixth-former, I went on a visit to the Road Research Laboratory, established around the time of my grandfather’s death, then still at Harmondsworth (and later, as a teacher I went with students to Crowthorne.) There I saw a great deal of research taking place about improving junctions for cars and about the safety of drivers in collisions, but little or nothing about the safety of pedestrians. And I don’t think cyclists were ever even mentioned, except on the later occasion when they wanted them to all wear cycle helmets – doubtless a cheaper if not too effective prescription rather than making roads safer.

It’s a bias that still operates widely, particularly in some local authorities, but also in the calculations of cost-benefit of various transport schemes. Or rather road schemes, as planners seldom seem to think of walking or cycling as means of transport or of them having any financial value. There are a few signs of change – and even back in the 1930s we got cycle paths alongside some of the new dual carriageways, though most of these have become unusable for cyclists because of lack of maintenance and widespread use as parking areas.

More recently we’ve seen more cycle paths and shared paths between cyclists and pedestrians, though many of these are half-hearted and essentially unusable for anyone for whom a bicycle is a means of transport, riddled with ‘give way’ signs and injunctions to dismount and sometimes ending abruptly with no place to go. In part it has been poor implementation, but it has also been due to guidance (doubtless from the now privatised Transport Research Laboratory that still saw cyclists as second (or third) class road users.

It’s a perception still held by many motorists – like the driver, who aggrieved I had beaten him to a mini-roundabout by a yard or two, kept beeping his horn as he drove behind me for the next hundred yards or so as I rode a safe distance beside a row of parked cars, or others who have swerved past me shouting ‘Get off the road!’ often rather less politely. And by government transport minister Chris Grayling who recently knocked a cyclist off his bike by careless opening of a car door, and argued that cyclists didn’t count as road users. It’s an opinion that should have resulted in his resignation.

But some things are changing a little in London, with a few advances even under Boris as Mayor, with the introduction of a few ‘cycle superhighways‘ and some other local schemes. There has been a huge increase in cycling in London, particularly since the introduction of Ken Livingstone’s cycle-hire scheme (Ken’s Cycles doesn’t have the alliterative attraction of Boris Bikes.)

Cyclists and pedestrians are still getting killed on London’s roads, largely by drivers who fail to see them, either because of poor vehicle design or failure to make proper observations when turning left over them. The London Traffic Deaths Vigil took place a month after London got a new mayor, and it was a month in which 3 cyclists and 8 on foot were killed by drivers on the streets of London. The aim was to persuade Sadiq Khan to take the problem seriously and take the urgent action needed to protect people on London’s streets. Unfortunately there seems to be little sign he is so far doing so.

These deaths are not accidents. As I write in My London Diary:

It’s wrong to think of these deaths as accidents; they happen because road users make mistakes, often made harder to avoid because of poor vehicle or road design. Many of them result from a lack of proper facilities for pedestrians and cyclists in a road system which prioritises getting motorised vehicles from A to B as fast as possible rather than safety. Some are caused by the failure of police to enforce road traffic law – for example on advanced stop lines at traffic lights. 

 London Traffic Deaths Vigil


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