Matters of moment, September 1991

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Motorway Madness

Statistics are sometimes suspect, but those about Motorway accidents are presumably accurate. They show that 6166 crashes caused 9790 casualties, resulting in 228 deaths and 1545 serious injuries, in 1989. (Where are last year’s figures?) Anything that can reduce this carnage is to be warmly welcomed.

It came in July, in the form of the Police National Motorway Safety Campaign. Unusually, this had several commercial sponsors, the foremost General Accident insurance, which could be said to have a vested interest, with the 1989 fatal accidents estimated to have cost the country more than £315,000,000. However, one could wish the Police Campaign every success.

But will it succeed, this operation that sought to educate Motorway users and which “had little sympathy from the police for those flouting the law,” to quote Mr Joslin, Chief Constable of Warwickshire? It was in operation for just nine days. Surely far too short a time to achieve the intended laudable objects? To help the campaign along, General Accident promoted a Gallup Poll, in which Motorway drivers were persuaded to sit in judgement on themselves while criticising the bad driving of others. For example, 91% thought drivers exceeded the speed limit with 48% saying they did so themselves, 84% claimed that temporary Motorway speed restrictions are ignored, but with 36% ignoring these themselves, the same number thought hogging the inner lanes was bad but 24% drove that way, and 21% of those who admitted to failing to move over for an overtaking vehicle said they found 74% of others did this! Note that however, that this Poll involved only 1010 Gallupsters, out of the 29 million licence holders, many of whom drive on Motorways. Notwithstanding, General Accident considers the Poll’s finding gives police a firm mandate to clamp down on such behaviour. It finds young people the ones who drive substantially over the speed limit, much more than other groups they Galluped — watch for premium increases if you are under 24 (motorcyclists had only 4% of those 1989 crashes; one hopes they qualify for reduced General Accident premiums).

Among such sponsors of this police anti-accident campaign were Shell, Esso, etc. The BSM put on a competition, the top prize a Rover Metro, presumably governed to 70 mph. Of course, one joins in hoping that this costly campaign achieved something; at the very least it will have been welcomed by the publicity people asked to help it along. One notes, however, that speed was once again the scapegoat. Not long ago many intelligent Chief Constables were advocating that the M-way limit could with advantage be raised to 80 mph to reduce dangerous bunching. This is a view apparently not endorsed by the heads of the Warwick and Lancashire Constabulary, who supported the Campaign which emphasised “Remember, 70 mph is the maximum on Motorways, not 75 mph, not 80 mph, not 90 mph.” Yet many police forces have hinted that they do not usually stop drivers doing up to 80 mph. No wonder 64% of GA’s Gallupsters admitted to driving the M-ways at between 70 and 80 mph “very”, or “quite” often. . . . Now we are back to the legal 70 and it is recommended that M-way drivers space themselves at 100 metre intervals, judging this by looking at the roadside markers.

Driving too close is one of the worst offences on ordinary roads, where traffic may have to stop at any moment. But on M-ways it is supposed never to stop, hard shoulder apart, except in fog, when it would be better if the affected sections of the M-way could be closed; whereas professionally-operated trains have accidents in broad daylight. So one wonders whether the best and safest use of these intentionally fast roads, once free of speed restrictions even when cars were not so safe as they now are, will be achieved when all users of them will spaced-out and proceeding at what (by optimistic speedometers) will be nearer 66 than 70 mph, with drivers glancing frequently at their speedometers, at road markers and in their mirrors? However, if that is the road to safety, so be it. Mr John Major’s desire to reduce coning on usable stretches of M-ways under repair is at least realistic.. . . And we cannot help noticing that Malcolm Rifkind, who would like to get car owners into trains and out of towns, supported the police campaign. A touch of hysteria had crept in, Mr. Gallup telling us that 1-in-5 of his pollsters leave a legacy of anxiety at home when they are off on an M-way journey and that almost the same number themselves regularly feared being in an accident. We put this in the same category as the belief that it is safer to fly than cross a road, both beliefs fanned by TV coverage of horrific, but fortunately rare accidents. — WB