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What makes the UK roads the Safest in the World?
Is it simply the legacy of the standards of excellence developed at the Police Driver Training School at Hendon?

 
Introduction

The UK roads are the safest in the world according to all the major indicators. There are supporting facts and figures information around this web site including:

(International1)
(international2)
(international3)

And you can see various of the latest tables and data at the International Road Traffic Accident Database (IRTAD)

Consider the graph above directly from IRTAD figures. The German Autobahns are twice as dangerous as the UK Motorways, but the Belgian motorways are twice as dangerous as the Autobahns and the Polish motorways are twice as dangerous as the Belgian motorways. That makes the Polish motorways 8 times more dangerous than the UK motorways despite similar speed limits - yet the German Autobahns are 4 times safer than the Polish motorways despite large sections with no speed limit at all.

So since there's no relationship between speed limits and safety on international motorways we'll have to look elsewhere for factors which set the relative safety of roads in different countries.

What makes such large differences from country to country?

Actually the answer is very very simple. It's culture. Roads culture. Driving culture. Safety culture. 

It's even absolutely clear where our superior culture came from. It started in the 1920s with one Sir Mark Everard Pepys, the 6th Earl of Cottenham. As a racing driver and motoring enthusiast he had a radio programme about safer driving in the late 1920s and was already explaining such basics as always being able to stop within the distance you could see to be clear. He also wrote a number of books. (If anyone has any of his books, please let us know - we'd love to publish some quotes).

But it wasn't until the late 1930s that the Earl got into a position to have a very wide influence. He was recruited into the early days of the Police Driving School at Hendon. With the Earl's ideas, and a pressing need to reduce Police Accidents, much of the modern UK culture was developed at Hendon. In fact Hendon soon became the only centre of driving excellence in the world.

It should come as no surprise that the only country with a centre of driving excellence has the safest roads in the world.

Hendon ideas pervaded UK driving culture. They have been included in the driving test, in legislation, in roads design and in advice given to drivers. But what sort of underlying principles have been included in UK driving culture?

Sound principles of UK driving culture

Individual responsibility

Central to the Hendon approach has always been a very high degree of individual responsibility. They used to say "You will never have an accident for which you are not to blame." when training Police drivers. Think about what it means. No matter what happened around them Police drivers were expected to by fully prepared for any eventuality. It's a very sound basis for good driving. Each individual is expected to take full responsibility for anticipating conflicts with other road users. This is at the very core of the principles which gave us the safest roads in the world. When one starts to consider what it might mean in practice one soon realises that this core principle of individual responsibility has some important consequential values. For example one must not exceed safety margins and must leave room for error and always have time to react. These things can only be achieved with appropriate attitudes, skills and methods.

Attitude

Good attitudes are proven to reduce accident risk. Drivers with good attitudes tend to have the following qualities. They are interested, not arrogant, calm, they take their driving seriously, they learn from their mistakes, they don't get annoyed by other road users, they make rational decisions, they always leave a margin for error, they are courteous and considerate to other road users. They have discipline and they take pride in their skills. 

Skills

Car control skills are nice to have but do not tend to make drivers safer. A successful racing driver with "lightning reactions" and brilliant car control might turn out to have quite a high accident risk on the road - and if he uses his skills to the max, he'll probably be quite dangerous. It is only when skills are combined with responsibility and an appropriate attitude that we actually see a benefit.

But there's another class of skill - summed up in the Hendon motto: experientia docet (experience teaches) - and that's in observation, anticipation and planning. The more miles we do the easier it gets to know what's going to happen next. We learn where to look and when to look and how to react to what we see. We learn to see extremely subtle clues about things that are about to happen and things that might happen. These are the subtle skills we gain through experience. Hazard perception is part of the process and good hazard perception takes perhaps 100,000 miles of experience to develop.

Methods

Many of the Hendon methods are secretly a proxy for attitude training. Some of the trainers won't even know this and we expect emails! Some Hendon techniques, for example pull-push steering and separating braking and gear changing are fairly cumbersome and force drivers into greater degrees of forward planning. Once learned it's the forward planning that provides the greater benefit than the cumbersome method.

Concentration

In some ways concentration is both an attitude and a skill. It's true we have to learn effective concentration, but the ongoing application of it is a product of attitude. High degrees of concentration call for a certain discipline or if you like mental attitude.

The real world

You might already be thinking: "but your describing the perfect driver" - and we are. We've been describing something akin to a police class one driver - probably still the highest driving qualification in the world. It's sometimes been observed that if everyone drove to police class one standards there would be hardly any accidents, and it's true.

But the point is we're closer, on average, to those standards in the UK than (for example) the Belgians and that's precisely why our motorways are four times safer. We ended up closer to those highly developed and subtle standards by leakage of Hendon ideas into UK driving culture.

Another item of good news is that there's plenty of room for improvement. By Police driver standards the average UK driver is actually pretty awful. This is good news because large gains can be had quite easily. We have some proposals to start the ball rolling.

This leads us towards a very very simple road safety strategy - if we can make our average driver just a little bit more like a class one police driver then we should expect accidents to fall. In order to achieve this we need to feed it right at the foundations of individual responsibility and attitude. Everything we do to emphasize and build individual responsibility and correct attitudes will improve drivers by tiny increments towards our ideal and accidents will drop as a consequence. We've even got 50 years of history to prove that accidents can drop and drop and drop.

In 1950, the fatal accident rate was about 95 deaths per billion vehicle km and in 2000 it was 7.3 deaths per billion vehicle km.  The roads got 13 times safer over 50 years. If we want them to get 13 times safer over the next 50 years we just need to stick to the same principles. It isn't rocket science. We're not trying to suggest that the entire 13 fold improvement over 50 years has been due to better drivers - far from it. The largest single area of improvement has probably been in vehicle safety. Road engineering treatments have been important - especially the proportion of total mileage now undertaken on motorways - and engineering treatment of accident black spots. Improvements in medical treatment too have saved many that might have died in previous years. These sorts of changes continue at similar or accelerating pace - especially vehicle safety. But we're no longer seeing the long established year on year fall in the fatal accident rate. This is because modern policy is making drivers worse and balancing the technical improvements. 

We've presently lost the plot. Modern policies - speed kills - cameras - restrictions - are moving our average driver further from the ideal. In short we are becoming more like Belgium and we will get more accidents and more fatalities as a direct and inevitable consequence.

Here's how those sound Hendon principles are being eroded.

Modern erosion

Individual responsibility

Whenever restrictions are placed on drivers individual responsibility is eroded. This is very very important.

How many times have you heard in the last decade: "it wasn't his fault, he wasn't exceeding the speed limit"? This a totally wrong - fault has to do with far more sophisticated judgements and actions than merely keeping within the speed limit. But as the "speed kills" modern twisted culture has developed more and more individual driver responsibility has been transferred to those who set speed limits. So far it has not been legal responsibility that has been transferred - It's been driver blameworthyness, but if we continue on this path it won't be too long before an official concerned with setting speed limits is sued or prosecuted following an accident.

By practical and realistic extension we now have a large population of drivers who see sticking to the speed limit as their main responsibility towards road safety. This is not good - real responsibilities go much deeper.

Think of the famous Dutch experiment where they removed road signs and markings and forced drivers to think about how to deal with a junction and other road users - with increased individual responsibility drivers automatically became more cautious and the accident rates tumbled.

The link between individual responsibility and safety is absolutely fundamental.

Attitudes

Attitudes too are being terribly eroded these days. It's a matter of how people approach the tasks and responsibilities of driving. Let's start by looking at the worst 10%. Here we find many selfish people who are happy to drive without insurance or other proper documentation. In important ways the speed camera style of roads policing has encouraged this sort of behaviour. With fewer police patrols the chance of getting caught has been much reduced. But - worse - at the same time the inclination to ignore registration requirements has been positively encouraged by automated enforcement. It has become obvious that speeding fines can't be collected if the vehicle is untraceable. And if the vehicle is untraceable, why bother with insurance and so on?

But we see bad attitude effects in all sorts of groups, not just the bottom 10%. People just don't take driving as seriously as they used to. We see "road rage". We see antagonism to the Police. People feel over regulated and react against it. 

Conclusions

Every single change made to our vast road safety system which includes 350,000 km of roads and 30 million drivers will tend to move the averages closer to or further away from the ideal. We are doing well. We already have the safest roads in the world. But let's make them safer still.

Modern "speed kills" road safety policy appears to think that the ideal is traffic at zero mph and no accidents.

We think the ideal is to have highly responsible, highly trained drivers with adequate time to react to anything that might happen. If we tend towards our ideal, speeds and transport efficiency can increase while accidents tend towards zero.

People ask why can't we have both more regulation (perhaps lower speeds) and better standards. I hope we've shown that the foundation of standards is individual responsibility and as soon as we increase regulation individual responsibility is reduced. You can't have both - more regulation will simply erode responsibility and attitudes and that will make us more like the Belgians.

We don't need to suddenly try to train all drivers to Police class one standard.

We just need to keep nudging the system in the right direction. It works. We have proved it over 50 years.

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Copyright © SafeSpeed 2003, 2004
Created 25/07/2003. Last update 7/03/2004
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