Bridget Driscoll was the first person to die on a British road when, on 17th August 1896, a motor car collided with her on the grounds of Crystal Palace in South London. At the inquest, the coroner, Percy Mason, said that he hoped “such a thing would never happen again”. Since then it is estimated that more than 550,000 people have been killed in or by motor vehicles on Britain’s roads.
Amongst such enormous numbers, it is all too easy to see road deaths and injury as an inevitable consequence of the freedom that driving is associated with. The UK Government for one appears to take this position. In 2010, the incoming government aligned its dash for economic growth with unfettered support for travel by motor vehicle. There was a nine-year fuel duty freeze, a £30 billion roadbuilding programme, cuts to public transport and especially bus services.
It also removed pre-existing targets for casualty reduction. Compared with 2010 (1,850 fatalities), UK road deaths in 2017 were only 3% lower (1,793 fatalities). At the same time, risk has continued to be transferred away from those in motor vehicles (835 deaths 2010; 787 deaths 2017 (-5.7%)) towards those on foot in particular (405 deaths 2010; 470 deaths 2017 (+16.0%)).
Some UK highway authorities are increasing their ambition to improve the safety of roads. Most notably in London the incoming mayoral administration in May 2016 adopted a Vision Zero approach to road safety. As in almost all other forms of transportation, this approach deems it unacceptable that lives are lost as we move around. The rail, air and maritime industries have been transformed by this “safe system” approach, where it is not the responsibility of individuals to ensure safety, but of the system that surrounds them.
In London, the 2018 Mayor’s Transport Strategy set the target for no deaths or serious injuries on London’s roads by 2041. The TfL Vision Zero Action Plan which sets out how to achieve this, was launched in July 2018.
Many cities’ Vision Zero plans are long on aspiration and short on action. While imperfect, TfL’s Vision Zero Action Plan sets out clearly what must change on our streets and roads. The main themes include:
- 20mph limits on all of the Red Route roads inside the Congestion Charging Zone by May 2020 and a further 37 locations across the rest of London over the next few years;
- improvements to 73 junctions around London as part of its Safer Junctions programme;
- all new TfL buses to be fitted with mandatory speed limiters; and
- a boost to enforcement by the Metropolitan Police including major operations to tackle dangerous driving and speeding on the A10 and A12.
But there are problems in London too. While the numbers of deaths on London’s roads have fallen in recent years, the number of serious injuries continues to rise (irrespective of the changes to the ways that casualties are reported). People walking and cycling continue to increase as a proportion of all fatal and serious injury casualties. While TfL are developing good policies, there is too little demand for change among London’s local and regional politicians. Communities are also struggling to understand what they should ask for; what makes their roads and streets both safe and more pleasant places to be.
Action Vision Zero has been set up to help communities campaign for the things proven to work to reduce road casualties. Key to this is a fairer balance between people and motor vehicles.
In built-up areas, we need to see fewer vehicles on our roads and better provision for public transport. Motor vehicles must travel at no more than 20mph and residential neighbourhoods should be free from rat-running through traffic. We need HGVs designed so that drivers can see people on foot and people cycling. We need protected cycle lanes on main roads and frequent and safe crossing facilities for people on foot.
The outcomes of a Vision Zero approach go far beyond road safety, of course. These policies will also help councils achieve their climate change goals, reduce horrific levels of air pollution and ensure people can build more physical activity into their daily lives.
This is also a matter of social justice. It is simply not fair that people walking bear the brunt of road risk. Fear of danger also prevents people choosing to walk or cycle, which further locks us into a future of car dependency. The time has come to break this vicious circle.
We will do our best to give groups and individuals all the practical advice and support they need to lobby their elected representatives to adopt Vision Zero policies and to introduce measures that will make streets and roads safe and attractive for us all.
It is no longer good enough to say we want to reduce casualties but do nothing effective about it. What works is known and we will do our best to get these measures implemented in order to drive down the numbers of casualties on our roads to the only number that is acceptable – zero.