Road safety hardly featured at all in the post-war years, where the emphasis was on re-building the economy and society after six years of brutal conflict which saw many of the accepted social norms disregarded and forgotten. I was born in Leeds in December 1944 making me either one of the last war babies, or the first of the ‘baby boomers’.
There were very few cars by today’s standards, in the cul-de-sac where I lived as a child there were 24 houses and by 1950 only two vehicles, both of which were used by we children as goals in the winter and wickets in the summer! Road safety education consisted of being taught by my mum to look both ways before crossing the road, a lesson delivered when she accompanied me.
My formal introduction to road safety came in 1963 when, having joined the Metropolitan Police Cadet Corps and at the age of 18, I was posted to a central London division, handed a ‘school crossing’ sign and assigned to local school crossings. I progressed to helping constables direct traffic until the Divisional Chief Inspector spotted me, delivered a stinging rebuke (as a cadet, I had no power to stop traffic) and returned me to school crossing patrol duties. I didn’t care, I was 18, working in London and being supplied with biscuits, cakes and chocolates by mums who all remarked on how young I looked. Traffic control could wait.
One year later, I became a constable and was posted to the adjoining division where I and my fellow constables spent much of our time on the five full time traffic points. It was on a rare break from traffic point duty that I was confronted with my first accident, an elderly woman stepped off the pavement at Trafalgar Square to cross immediately in front of a large lorry waiting in traffic. As she did, the traffic cleared the lorry, whose driver was unable to see her, moved off and she was crushed under the wheels, dying instantly.
I continued to deal with crashes for the next 12 years through the ranks of Sergeant and Inspector and then clambered further up the slippery promotion pole and had two posting to Traffic. The first as a Chief inspector when I commanded a traffic unit in Bow (East London) and learned to ride a motorcycle properly and later as a Chief Superintendent when I commanded the Metropolitan Police Traffic Department.
It was in this role that I made probably my most important and probably controversial contribution to road user safety and traffic management when I oversaw, perhaps drove forward would be a more appropriate description, the introduction of the first speed cameras in the UK in 1992, then agreed and then set in place arrangements for the transfer of responsibility for enforcement of parking contraventions from the Met to London Local Authorities which took place in April 1994.
In 1994, I retired from the Met and became Traffic and Road Safety Manager at RAC Motoring Services and later became Head of Road Safety at RAC Foundation. Finally at the end of 2006, I joined the newly formed IAM Foundation as Head of Road Safety.
If I had to point to one single change I have seen in the road safety world, it would be in public and media attitudes. In my youth the annual road death toll was about 5,000 per year with serious injuries running at about 10 times that number and this excited little or no media interest or public outrage. In recent years the death toll has fallen to about 1,700 per year but public attitudes and media reporting suggest that there is much less willingness to tolerate it.
If asked what I believe to be the future problem I would unhesitatingly nominate driver distraction arising from mobile communications and ‘in car infotainment’ touch screens etc. The casualty statistics suggest that the number of crashes, casualties and fatalities arising from this form of driver distraction, although not yet a major causal factor, is rising annually. This takes place against a background of ever more potential distractions being engineered into smart phones and in car touchscreens and the continuing and inexorable reduction of police enforcement capability.
The traditional enforcement response has failed, a fact demonstrated by Government having increased the penalties for illegal phone use twice in 13 years with a further increase promised and no obvious change in driver behaviour. I am a strong advocate of education, post detection driver improvement courses etc, but do not believe that these present a viable long term deterrent.
I believe the only viable sustainable option is for Government to sit down with communications and car manufacturers and thrash out a protocol for delivering a system or systems to physically prevent drivers from allowing themselves to become distracted. I recognise that this may well lead to preventing smart phones from being used in a moving vehicle, but consider that this may well come to be considered a price worth paying to reduce the injuries and deaths arising from driver distraction.
Kevin Delaney LLB, IAM RoadSmart consultant and head of road safety