16 07 2012

In the UK the government is proposing lowering speed limits in order to make the roads safer. But will such legislation have the desired effect or is bigger picture strategy to address road safety being overlooked?

News broke last week that the government is contemplating reducing speed limits on certain roads. Streets in cities might face a limit of 20mph and country lanes might be lowered to 40mph. The idea was welcomed by some and opposed by others but what no one seemed to consider is why the government is making this suggestion at all?

To make our roads safer” might be a standard response but will that really be the effect?

Will a lower speed limit make a bad driver good? Is it speed that causes accidents or the inappropriate use of speed? We were told that more accidents are fatal on country roads than urban roads. Is that a surprise?

A bad driver will still be a bad driver, it is inappropriate use of speed that causes accidents and country roads will still be further from hospitals and harder for ambulances to access than urban roads.

If the aim is to make our roads safer, don’t we already have sufficient legislation on the books? The problem isn’t the legislation being less safe it is surely that it is inadequately enforced and policed.

I spend a lot of time in my car visiting clients all over the country. I regularly see tailgating, undertaking and inattentive drivers sitting in the centre lane on motorways while the inside lane stays empty. I see drivers pull out without indicating, people who appear not to know the purpose of a mirror and more, much more. What I rarely see is any police presence.

That is not to blame the police; they can only allocate the resources at their disposal according to whatever the priorities may be. And what new legislation on speeding won’t change is the resources police have at their disposal and their ability to enforce the new laws any more than they enforce the existing ones.

Last week I closed a blog explaining the difference between strategy and tactics with the following 2500 year old quote: ‘Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat’ (Sun Tzu).

If the strategy is to deliver on the aim of making the roads safer, the policing and enforcement of existing legislation must be a key component. Without that, simply changing the law without providing the resources to deliver on the aim behind that change is ‘the noise before defeat.

As an example, consider a road not far from where I am writing this blog. Superficially this road was made safer by the building of a series of chicanes where drivers in one direction have right of way and drivers from the other give way. The problem is that no one polices the chicanes and it has become a little like Russian Roulette at times; will the car coming towards me stop and give way (as the rules dictate) or will the car accelerate and rush to get through the chicane before me ?

In an effort to slow cars down, the change has created a system where some people speed up, dangerously so, to make the gap before the car with the right of way. Not only cars but vans and buses do the same; I have even, on occasion, witnessed the police themselves do so!

Lowering the speed limit would have no effect on this behaviour, policing the chicanes and enforcing the law would.

Why don’t the police do so? A statement from Nottinghamshire Police explains their position:

We try to influence driver behaviour but realistically, it is down to drivers themselves not to be aggressive behind the wheel and to drive courteously and with consideration for other road users, something which would be relevant to concerns about the driving through local chicanes.

I emphasise, the police can only deploy the resources they have and if this is a lower priority they cannot police it. I’m sure we would all prefer they target murderers and rapists than chicanes put in place to make the road safer but which, because of lack of enforcement, have led to a different set of problems rather than a solution. But is a strategy of merely hoping drivers will follow the rules a sensible one? To what other areas of the law should we extend that thinking before its folly is exposed? But don’t blame the police, they don’t make the rules, they only police them and then with inadequate and decreasing resources.

As it is with chicanes, so it is with reducing speed limits without considering the whole picture. Would existing limits work if better enforced? Will lower/changed limits be any better enforced? Can a way be found to retrain bad drivers (not always also fast drivers) or to take them off the road? There are lots of questions to which we need answers before knowing the value of doing anything with speed limits.

On the face of it, lowering speed limits to make the roads a safer place appears a great tactic. But what of the full picture, what of the strategy?

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, July 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan


Twitter @cowanglobal




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