Being the best is simply not good enough
Article by Jenny Jones, a Green party member of the London Assembly and
Mayor’s green transport adviser, on road safety to European Transport
Over the last six years in London we have invested more in road safety and reduced road casualties far faster than in other UK urban centers. London has achieved most of the Government’s targets for reducing road casualties five years early. The result is that London has reduced total casualties by over 40% and we are also ahead of the national target for cutting child casualties by half. There is nothing more rewarding to a politician to be part of the team which has stopped two and a half thousand people from being killed or seriously injured every year in London, but of course it means nothing to the parents, friends and relatives who are still suffering loss because of our dangerous roads.
One person dying on our roads is a tragedy, but several thousand being killed in the UK every year is a political scandal. I simply don’t understand why we allow our roads to be so dangerous, when we invest billions to ensure that our train and tube system is relatively safe. We seem to suffer from a collective shrug of the shoulders when discussing road safety, neatly summed up in the phrase that ‘accidents happen’. Challenging that culture of resigned complacency is one of the reasons why I got the Met police to agree that they would only refer to traffic collisions, rather than traffic accidents. As the police officer says in the newly released film ‘Hot Fuzz’, you don’t know if it was an accident until you have investigated the causes.
The other important change in the road safety culture in London is that being the best simply isn’t good enough. Our response to meeting the national targets has been to adopt tougher ones. So our aim now is to cut by half the total number of those killed and seriously injured on the roads and to reduce by 60% reduction the number of children killed and seriously injured by 2010. Some of the local councils in London where initially reluctant to support these higher targets, but the determination of Transport for London has made everyone fall into step.
Unfortunately, existing camera based systems are not entirely successful because of the high number of illegal drivers on London’s roads. The Met Police halved the number of traffic police and regarded road safety as a very low priority. Drivers have spent the last decade or more thinking that they can break the law in London and get away with it. The result is that in some parts of London, a quarter of all people injured in traffic collisions are victims of hit and run drivers.
It has been a hard struggle to change the outlook of senior police officers, but having stopped any further decline in the number of traffic police I have pressed them to use Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) machines. Being a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority has been vital for me in getting a change of policy and linking the police with the work of Transport for London.
The police have gone from issuing under a thousand Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) for the offence of driving with no valid insurance in early 2003, to dishing out over six times as many last year. The Met Police have also had to increase their capacity to seize and store the vehicles of illegal drivers from 4,000 per annum to 9,000 per annum, with many of these being subsequently sold, or crushed and recycled. This is still barely scratching the surface of illegal drivers in London, but it does show that the Met Police are now willing partners in making our roads safer.
One battle I haven’t won is over the installation of safety cameras in London. Speed cameras installed by London Safety Camera Partnership have on average seen a 40 percent reduction in the number people killed or seriously injured. The partnership estimates that 66 new cameras would lead to a reduction of 80 people killed or seriously injured every year in London. However, the reality is that we have trailed behind the rest of the country for years and we still have a backlog of a thousand sites which have been identified as meeting the Government’s tough casualty based criteria for needing a camera. The problem all along has been a lack of political will from National politicians who are constantly running scared of the car lobby. The only thing now stopping us from putting these cameras immediately in place is the annual budget restraints imposed by the Government.
The other day I came across a dreadful story in a local paper about a young girl who was run over crossing a very fast, busy road. She and her friends had taken to running across the main road, because they were too scared of being attacked if they used the underpass which the transport planners had provided for them. The engineers proposed solution to prevent future deaths is to put up more barriers along the road side in the hope that teenagers won’t simply jump over them. For me the obvious thing is to stop the traffic and let the pedestrians have priority. It is a question of what we value more. Metal or flesh? Sustainable forms of transport or fast, polluting vehicles?
There are three lessons which I feel other cities and European governments might find useful to explore. First, don’t accept a collective shrugging of shoulders. Adopt either the Swedish ‘vision zero’ approach, or the London version which is that the best is not good enough. Secondly, increase funding for road safety. Whether you spend it on engineering, enforcement or education, there is no single magic bullet and no short cut to reducing deaths and injuries on the road. Thirdly, link road safety with a wider agenda of improving our cities and our environment. Reducing casualties is good, but we must also have a policy goal of reducing the fear of road danger and encouraging people to use more sustainable forms of transport.
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