How to Improve Road Safety

On March 1st 2000, the government published a review of road safety, which can be viewed on the Internet at
And I've read it too! In many ways this was something of a damp squib, that offered few new resources and no dramatically new thinking, just more of the same. It seemed to concentrate on increasing the penalties for existing violations of road traffic law rather than looking more deeply into the root causes of accidents, and it is hard to see the government's objective of a 40% cut in road deaths by 2010 being achieved. Surely we should concentrate on stopping accidents happening in the first place rather than simply punishing people more severely when they do.

The following are some alternative proposals for improving safety on our roads. I don't claim any superior wisdom on this issue - these are merely tentative ideas - and I don't dispute for a moment that there's a lot of good sense in the government document.

Driver Training

  • Institute an official national higher-level training scheme which concentrates on the safety and hazard perception elements of the current Institute of Advanced Motorists test
  • Provide an incentive for passing this advanced test, possibly in the form of lower road tax
  • However the basic test should not be made significantly more difficult as this would encourage unlicensed drivers. It is important to keep driving within the capabilities of virtually all the adult population
  • Make the annual licence fee apply to the driver, not the car, thus providing an incentive for lower-skilled, occasional drivers not to drive
  • Drivers who allowed their licence to lapse for 3 years would have to retake the standard test
  • Introduce compulsory retesting every 5 years for all new drivers entering the population. Failures would have 2 more chances to pass within 6 months. Then they would have to go off the road for a year before being able to try again. This should not however apply to existing drivers
  • Reinstate the use of road-safety related public information films. Many of these in the past featured memorable slogans that entered into the vernacular such as "Think Bike!" and "Clunk-click every trip!" You don't see these nowadays


  • Ensure speed limits are set on a consistent basis across the country. The concept of speed limits is undermined if drivers encounter dramatically different limits on roads of similar characteristics
  • Restrict the powers of local authorities to set speed limits. Require them to take police advice into account and restore the powers of central government to review and if necessary overrule their decisions
  • Apply the 85th percentile test* properly when setting speed limits
  • Restore 40 mph limits on suburban main roads outside shopping centres where appropriate. This will make it more likely that drivers will slow to 30 where it really is desirable
  • Increase the speed limit on motorways and motorway-standard dual carriageways to 80 mph
  • Introduce electronic following distance warning signs on motorways
  • Ensure that 20 mph limits are only implemented where they really are relevant to safety, and not as generalised measures to make car use less attractive. It is potentially very dangerous to mix up safety with traffic deterrence
  • Concentrate speed cameras on recognised accident black spots. There should be more on urban high streets and near busy junctions, and a lot fewer on open country roads.
  • All speed cameras should be clearly marked and signed in advance - their purpose is as a deterrent, not to catch people out and raise revenue
  • Strengthen and emphasise Rule 145 of the Highway Code which states that drivers should not hold up following traffic, and should let it pass where convenient to do so

* The 85th percentile test is that the speed limit should be set at or around the 85th percentile speed of free-flowing traffic along the road. This has been proven to be the most effective and safest level. There is ample evidence that setting limits below the average speed of free-flowing traffic, particularly on non-urban roads, actually increases the casualty rate.

Drink and Drugs

  • Retain the 80 mg drink-driving limit (which it seems they have grudgingly decided to do)
  • Provide realistic information on drink-driving, i.e. not "a half of shandy turns you into a drunken killer" which opens up the entire drink-driving publicity campaign to ridicule
  • Mount a major publicity campaign about "morning after" driving
  • Take more effective action against drug-driving

Cyclists and Pedestrians

  • Enforce the rules of the road on cyclists. Give penalty points for cycling offences
  • Mount a drive on cyclist and pedestrian safety. Stress the dangers of alcohol and drugs to cyclists and pedestrians
  • Ensure all children are taught a proper kerb drill at school. The road safety message must not be compromised by dubious environmental propaganda about the evils of cars
  • Review the design and provision of cycle lanes which often do not meet what cyclists want and have been shown to often actually increase danger for cyclists

Unlicensed Drivers

  • Target people driving while disqualified or without tax, insurance and MOT
  • Require insurance and MOT details to be displayed on windscreens

Road Building and Design

  • Reinstate the program of building new, safer roads, which by definition will not contain accident blackspots or dangerous junctions and therefore will not require speed cameras
  • Review all dangerous junctions, particularly those involving right turns onto busy main roads. This is probably the area where a relatively small investment would pay most dividends
  • Ensure that adequate overtaking opportunities are provided on all non-urban main roads. There has been an increasing tendency to reduce overtaking opportunities by the use of bollards and wide hatched areas, which in practice is likely to provoke unsafe and risky overtaking manoeuvres
  • Rationalise road markings which are becoming increasingly confusing
  • Set consistent national standards for traffic calming schemes. If they're all different it's hard to know how to react

(April 2000)

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