A Vacuous and Dangerous Argument About Speed and Safety

The UK-based Organisation ‘Safe Speed’ Makes Repeated Yet Empty Arguments About Speeding 

Editorial opinion, by Eddie Wren

20 April, 2005

Just as a few organisations in the USA argue that the now uniform 0.08% blood-alcohol limit is too low, despite only two countries in the world still having a higher limit, so Safe Speed in the UK argues that drivers should effectively be allowed to make up their own minds about what speed is safe at any given moment. Yet examination of both of these standpoints reveals deadly flaws that their authors either fail or refuse to accept.

 

 

Press Release — 19 April, 2005 — Issued by Safe Speed, via Newspress

 

BBC Midlands Today reported that police officer Mark Milton is in Ludlow Magistrates Court accused of speeding and dangerous driving. Allegedly he drove an unmarked Police car at speeds up to 159mph in December 2003 on the M54 near Telford. Milton denies speeding and dangerous driving.
Safe Speed says that such cases highlight the yawning gulf between fact and official propaganda when it comes to speeding and speed limits.
Paul Smith, founder of the Safe Speed road safety campaign (www.safespeed.org.uk) explains: “Many assume that ‘the higher the speed the bigger the danger’ but reality is far more complex. Often 20mph is dangerously fast in crowded places yet 159mph is fairly routine and not considered dangerous on the German autobahns in suitable conditions. Clearly safety cannot be judged by the number on the speedometer — it can only be judged with full reference to the prevailing conditions.”
Smith continues: “The vast majority of dangerous speeds on our roads are well within the speed limit. The government must wake up to the fact that there’s far more to setting a safe and appropriate speed than obeying the number on the sign. They should be helping drivers to use speed wisely, not giving out the dangerously oversimplified message that ‘you’ll be safe if you stick to the speed limit’.”
New camera vans positioned on the M4 motorway are apparently ticketing drivers filmed at over 79mph, yet the [UK] Police routinely train their drivers at speeds in excess of 130mph on public roads. These two police behaviours cannot both be morally justified. Safe Speed says enforcement must concentrate on danger, not simple legality.
Smith concludes: “It’s very important that no one drives too fast, but ‘too fast’ depends on the conditions and not the speed limit. The message given to drivers in the speed camera era is dangerously oversimplified — £700 million pounds of speeding fines have been issued to 12 million drivers and the roads are getting more dangerous — deaths are up. Speed camera policy has completely failed. We have to get back to the road safety policies and practices that gave us the safest roads in the world in the first place.”

 

 

Having had the good fortune to have been trained as a police advanced driver and advanced motorcyclist in Britain, and to have served for many years not only as a patrol officer but also as a safety specialist, the writer of this response to Paul Smith’s comments largely takes the opposite viewpoint to Mr Smith and his ‘Safe Speed’ organisation.

The first comment Drive and Stay Alive would make relates to Mr Smith’s assertion that “[Police speed camera vans] are apparently ticketing drivers filmed at over 79mph, yet the [UK] Police routinely train their drivers at speeds in excess of 130mph on public roads. These two police behaviours cannot both be morally justified.”

The claim that ‘these two police behaviours cannot both be morally justified’ is, in our opinion, nonsense.

The primary focus of UK police driver training is the maximisation of safety, and as Mr Smith is fully aware this training takes many weeks. Typically, the advanced driving aspect requires at least six weeks, including three at the mandatory intermediate level, and advanced motorcycling requires a minimum of a further three weeks training: At least 240 or 360 hours of training. Therefore — given this world-class training that to the knowledge of DSA is not matched in any other country, and the essential emergency work undertaken by traffic patrol police officers — it is facile to claim either that traffic patrol police officers should not be allowed to drive so fast or that, alternatively, modern technology should not be used to enforce the speed limit that applies to ordinary drivers. No matter what their individual merits, the two points are mutually irrelevant.

The driver training aspect is — in the opinion of Drive and Stay Alive — the crux of the matter. The very fact that the UK police commit countless millions of pounds to the training and regular reviews of each traffic officer’s driving standards is testimony to the vital nature of that training.

Despite the grief and understandable anger created by fatal crashes involving police vehicles traveling at high speeds, it has to be said that by international comparison the number of people killed or injured in Britain each year in crashes involving police advanced drivers is very small indeed.

At DSA we would therefore take this argument one step further:  If such a massive amount of training is required to permit UK traffic police officers to drive at excessive speeds when an emergency requires such action, it is clear that it would also be necessary for all drivers to be trained to a much higher standard if they were to be trusted with the accuracy of judgment needed for them to exceed the current national speed limits in safety.

Britain already has one of the most demanding driving tests in the world but this is clearly not even remotely near the standard of proper advanced driving that is deemed essential for police officers to drive at higher speeds. Even the RoSPA- ADA Gold Advanced Driving award — the equal highest civilian driving award in the world — does not come close to British police standards in terms of coping safely with higher speeds. So despite all of the clever arguments of the Safe Speed campaign, Drive and Stay Alive firmly backs the standpoint that current UK speed limits should be no higher and that drivers should not be given free rein to decide on an individual basis that just because they consider themselves to be excellent drivers they can go more or less whatever speed they want. That is not only nonsense, it is deadly and irresponsible nonsense.

Mr Smith also states that “159mph is fairly routine and not considered dangerous on the German autobahns in suitable conditions.” To some extent this is true, but it is worth mention that contrary to popular belief, high speeds are only allowed on a relatively small proportion of the autobahn network. One other point is unarguable and that is the simple fact that in any crash the higher the speed the lower the chances of survival. That is basic physics.

He writes, above, in relation to the dangers of speed, that “reality is far more complex” but driving at higher speeds in total safety is far more complex, too. There could be no room for even momentary lapses of safety if Safe Speed’s policies were ever to be introduced, yet such lapses would be both inevitable and frequent, and extra, entirely unnecessary deaths would invariably be caused.

Mr Smith’s favourite mantra was repeated when he wrote: “We have to get back to the road safety policies and practices that gave us the safest roads in the world in the first place.”

One of Paul Smith’s grievances is that since the advent of speed cameras in Britain the number of traffic patrol police officers has been reduced, and in the past he has concluded — probably correctly — that this is largely due to senior officers’ and politicians’ beliefs that some of the officers’ work is now being done by the cameras. We agree wholeheartedly with Mr Smith that this is a dangerous and regrettable course of action, and at Drive and Stay Alive we believe that even though speeds and casualties have been reduced by the presence of speed cameras at various ‘accident black spots’ this reduction in the number of officers will lead to a growth in casualties and fatalities from numerous other dangerous offences that many drivers commit.

Mr Smith’s assertion, however, that Britain has somehow abandoned “the road safety policies and practices that gave us the safest roads in the world in the first place” is in our opinion an empty claim.

Using data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] and their International Road Traffic and Accidents Database [IRTAD], Drive and Stay Alive created a table that shows the per capita death rates for a growing number of countries from 1988 to 2002. And while this table does show other countries gaining ground on Britain, it is widely acknowledged that the better a country is performing the more difficult it becomes to make further significant gains in casualty reduction.

After the IRTAD became subject to re-structuring, in 2003/4, Drive and Stay Alive published its own table to show all known death tolls and per capita fatality rates for 2003. View it here.

With the one exception of the reduced number of traffic patrol officers, Drive and Stay Alive does not believe that the latest available figures show any abandonment of “the road safety policies and practices that gave us the safest roads in the world in the first place”. Indeed, we believe the British target for massive reductions in road casualties by the year 2010 will not only achieve excellent results — as latest figures suggest it is already doing — but that it will indeed keep us at the very forefront of meaningful road safety standards throughout the world.

As the countries of the world increasingly look to each other, rather than just to their own past performance, to establish what are the latest global best practises, Britain, Sweden, Norway, and now the Netherlands and Japan, may be justifiably proud of having attained world-leading results.

Can Britain and other countries continually do better?

For the sake of every single life saved, the answer must always be ‘of course’.

Mr Smith’s assertion that Britain has somehow abandoned “the road safety policies and practices that gave us the safest roads in the world in the first place” is in our opinion not only an inaccurate claim, but it also smells strongly of empty, tabloid- style scaremongering tactics.

It is also Drive and Stay Alive opinion that either giving drivers some form of discretion about compliance with speed limits or significantly raising British national speed limits so that effectively untrained drivers — in terms of appropriate advanced driving standards — could travel significantly faster than at present would be extreme folly.

Mr Smith makes a valid point when he states ‘often 20mph is dangerously fast in crowded places’. But his claim that ‘the vast majority of dangerous speeds on our roads are well within the speed limit’ is misleading. Imagine, for example, a scenario in which a car travelling at 70mph on a motorway moved into the third lane, into the path of another vehicle that was coming up from behind at 120 or perhaps even 150mph!

A widened range of legally-acceptable speeds would in itself create immense danger and just such an accident occurred recently on a German autobahn, in which a mother and her child were killed. That crash increased the outcry in Germany that high speeds should no longer be allowed on autobahns — a factor that Mr Smith, to the best of our knowledge, has never mentioned.

 

 

 flag_thumb-germany October 24, 2004: Unlimited Speeds on Germany’s Autobahns May be Coming to an End

     ….Germany is the only country in Europe that allows motorists to drive as fast as they like on the highway. Racing down the autobahn is almost a national birthright here, a rare sip of freedom in an otherwise highly regulated, law-abiding society.

     But now the sacred right to drive like a bat out of hell is under threat. To the horror of [fast drivers], Germany has started debating whether to slap speed limits across its legendary highway system.

     With polls suggesting for the first time a slight majority favors speed caps, politicians from all parties have embraced the message that environmentalists have been pushing here for years: that slower driving would not only cut pollution and limit fuel consumption, but also save lives. Bills raising the [subject] have not yet been filed.

     Earlier this year, the perils of roadrunner driving were highlighted when Rolf Fischer, a test driver for Mercedes-Benz, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for running another car off the autobahn.

     At the time of the crash, which killed a young mother and her daughter, Fischer was traveling legally at 155 mph. His trial was widely covered and prompted many Germans to question the wisdom of letting ordinary people, never mind professional drivers, enact their Formula One fantasies on the autobahn….

     At the same time, Germany is under pressure from abroad to put on the brakes, with the European Union reportedly gearing up to impose speed limits on highways across the continent….

     German authorities already have used speed caps to make the autobahn safer. Last year, after an 80-mph limit was imposed on the busy stretch between Hamburg and Berlin, traffic-related deaths fell from eight to zero, according to a government study.

[Source: Houston Chronicle]

 

 

Britain’s roads are among the most densely populated in the world — which makes the UK track record in safety all the more remarkable — and to maintain the country’s position as a road safety world leader it is essential that those roads are not allowed to become a race track for those drivers who are merely of the opinion that they are good enough to know when to disregard either speed laws or any other safety laws. It is an established fact that over 90 per cent of crashes occur due to driver error and it is probably accepted universally that the majority of drivers in most countries generally drive quite badly. Giving such people discretion about the speeds at which they could drive would undoubtedly be a recipe for many, many tragedies. And creating some sort of elitist group of civilian advanced drivers to speed whenever they felt like it would be inappropriate, would cause extra dangers due to speed differentials and would simply add to the enforcement burden of the police. After all, a ‘test driver for Mercedes-Benz’ (see above story from Germany) would probably be held by most people to be a good driver, yet he managed to cause two deaths because of a massive speed differential.

Contact Eddie Wren or ‘Drive and Stay Alive’ here.

Related article: Groups Slam ‘Shameful’ Proposals for Speeding Laws in Britain — outrage at moves to reduce penalties