THE WAY TO ROAD SAFETY
THE Easter casualties on the road seem to have reached little more than 25 per cent, of the total which the Minister of Transport predicted on the basis of previous years' records, and that though the volume of traffic on the roads is estimated to have been 25 per cent. greater than at Easter, 1933. We are entitled to derive what satisfaction we can therefrom ; and we need it, in view of the final casualty figures for the whole of 1933, published, • like Major Stanley's new Traffic Bill, on the eve of the holiday. Last year 7,202 persons were killed in road accidents in Great Britain as against 6,667 in 1932 ; while the injured were 216,328 in 1983 as against 206,450 in 1932. And the number of cars on the roads of Great Britain is still steadily increasing. In face of statistics like these, a Minister who introduces any reasonable measure with a view to making the roads of the country safer will find opinion biased from the start in his favour—an experience which Ministers may invariably deserve but do not invariably enjoy.
But before the merits of a particular measure are discussed, the place of legislation in regard to such a matter as the control of motor-cars needs to be examined. Laws undoubtedly have their function, but however wisely they are conceived and however firmly administered, the decisive factors in regard to road safety must be the force of public opinion and the faithful observance of a code of honour by individual drivers. Motorists as a class are more amenable to considerations of this order than most people, for they have long been schooled to obeying what are in effect—though not literally— unwritten laws. It is no doubt a misdemeanour to drive on the wrong side of the road, or to disregard traffic lights or a point-policeman's hand, but every motorist does instinctively respect regulations on these matters, not because they happen to figure somewhere on the Statute-book, but because they form part of a code whose observance alone makes motoring in safety possible at all. So far from these restrictions having to be imposed on motorists, the motorist welcomes them undisguisedly, and so far as the lights and the police- pointsmen are concerned only asks to have them multi- plied. The more the idea of the code of honour can be pressed, the more public opinion can be mobilized and made effective, the. sooner will the roads of Great Britain be made safer for the democracy that uses them. Conclusions can only be drawn with caution from the experience of a single Easter, but there is at least some evidence that such forces can achieve something without the adventitious aid of new restrictive legislation—for the legislation has only so far cast its shadow before it ; it will not materialize for some months.
Traffic laws, then, ought to supplement, not supersede, the more potent though less concrete forces which do already make for safety on the roads ; and in their application and execution they ought so far as possible to be preventive rather than penal. It is in the light of those principles that Major Stanley's Bill must be judged —and so considered it must be pronounced in all essentials sound. Its preventive provisions include the imposition of a speed-limit of 30 miles an hour in built-up areas, defined as thoroughfares lighted with street lamps ; the institution of a driving-test for new drivers ; and a clause giving the Minister power (which, apparently, may or may not be exercised) to require cyclists to paint white patches on their rear-mudguards, and an absolute requirement that the reflectors which cyclists are already required to carry shall be efficient. All these provisions are open to some criticism. It can be argued with justice that there are many lamp-lit thoroughfares—a good number within the London County Council area itself—where a speed of over 80 miles an hour is perfectly safe for a car with normally sound brakes, and that a driving-test is pointless, since it is not the incompetent but the careless or dare-devil driver that causes accidents ; while in the case of cyclists it can be urged with reason that there will be no real safety till rear lamps are made compulsory instead of reflectors. All that is true, but to such sub- missions the Minister has a fully adequate answer. So long as the slaughter on the roads continues on the present appalling scale no measure that falls short of the needs of the occasion can be defended, and no measure that goes a little beyond them will be condenmed.
Forty miles an hour in certain built-up areas may be safe, but it is no hardship to anyone to be restricted to thirty miles, and lives may actually be saved thereby.
Driving tests may be largely futile, but they can do no one any harm and may do some drivers good. They can at least be tried. There is no difficulty about dropping them if they are found valueless.
On that side the new Bill can safely be left to stand on its own merits. The same may be said of the clauses strengthening the rights of third parties under insurance policies. Its penal provisions are more questionable, though they in fact alter the existing law only to the extent of enabling licences to be suspended on a first conviction on a charge of careless driving or exceeding the speed-limit. Speed-limits, if they are imposed, must be enforced, but the old apparatus of speed-traps was obnoxious on many grounds, and it may be hoped that the plain and simple provisions of the new Bill will make prosecutions rarely necessary. Motoring can be conducted on a 30-mile or 40-mile or 50-mile basis, and motorists may fairly be expected to make the 30-mile basis a settled habit except in the open country—and very often there as well. But the distinction between careless and dangerous driving is essentially unreal, and it is a pity it was ever introduced. On the congested roads of this country careless driving is almost invariably dangerous, and if it is not it is hardly worth penalizing. Even dangerous driving, unless it actually results in an accident, or has such visible effect as forcing another car on to the footpath, is hard to prove by satisfactory evidence. The mobile police, who can follow a driver for some miles and note an accumula- tion of misdemeanours, may be reliable witnesses, but what is at issue is often a perfectly genuine conflict of opinion—as to whether, for example, an overtaking driver had a sufficient view of clear road in front to justify him in going past—and country benches are often prejudiced. Prosecutions might with advantage be confined to flagrant cases of dangerous driving. There would be quite enough of those to keep the courts well occupied.
One mistake, above all, must be avoided in the dis- cussion of this whole question and in consideration of the new Traffic Bill. The motorist must not be regarded in word or in thought as a potential criminal. He is nothing of the sort. Probably 99 per cent. of motorists are as law-abiding in all their ways as the Lord Chancellor. Accidents are due to the odd 1 per cent., to a like minority of careless cyclists and careless pedestrians, and to public authorities which neglect to provide roads adequate to carry the vastly increased traffic of today, or to reduce the perils of the roads by constructing them with non- skid surfaces and by straightening out the more obviously dangerous bends. That again only applies to a small. minority of authorities,- but it is necessary to remember tliat it does apply to them. For there will never be safety on the roads of Britain till every citizen realizes that the slaughter on the roads of Britain is a national humiliation, and till all concerned—motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, local authorities, the Ministry of Transport, Parliament—co-operate to wipe out the stain. The safety habit can be learned, and if it involves a deliberate self-discipline and self-restraint, that means that it has a moral as well as a utilitarian value. Safety so acquired is something of vastly higher quality than the partial safety to be secured by legislation.