It is often asserted (occasionally even by rational people) that the UK has a raft of anti-motorist measures. As a road user on both two and four wheels, I have some difficulty in discerning which measures are supposed to be anti-motorist. There are, however, a lot of explicitly pro-motorist measures, many of which actively degrade safety for other road users.
Some of the more militant pro-motorist mob describe a lot of this as anti-motorist, usually by mixing in judgemental words like "unnecessary" and the like. I'll try to avoid any such sophistry.
Every new piece of legislation seems to be watered down to the point that it does not actually present any meaningful deterrent to driving. Each incremental change, though governments promise it will lead people to switch to more sustainable modes, simply results in them carrying on driving and bitching a bit more. The motor lobby is incredibly deeply ingrained in Westminster, dominating groups such as PACTS.
- Crisis? What crisis?
- Enabling the incompetent
- Enabling wider participation
- Revenues and duties
- Urban traffic controls
- The hierarchy of road users
Crisis? What crisis?
Motorists complain. They always have. Nothing done for them is ever enough, everything done to them is too much. The roads are a part of the commons and virtually every debate about the roads is, in some way, a restatement of. Is there such a thing as an anti-motorist measure? Absolutely. The single most powerful anti-motorist measure, one in which every single government in my lifetime has been complicit, is failing to stand up and bluntly state this fact: the roads are a necessarily limited resource, and if we all act in our own self-interest - and even more so if we demand that public policy also acts in our own self-interest - then the resource will become useless. It has been hovering on the brink for a long time, and even then the measures tinkering around the margins to prevent final collapse have been bitterly resented by those who would be the first to complain if the system actually was left to break down.
The question is, why would anybody want to do anything to control private car use? This is a difficult question to answer fully as there are so many reasons for doing so ranging from the selfish - getting other drivers off the road to make more space for me - to the philosophical - motoring being a mode necessarily and permanently denied to a substantial minority, enforcing the privilege of those to whom it is not denied is fundamentally iniquitous. In the end it comes down to competing pressures between the driver in his car, and the driver out of his car - as pedestrian, resident, shopper, business owner, doctor or whatever. There are powerful voices in politics and most of them are comprised mainly of car owners and users. Doctors, for example, a long-term influence on motoring policy, were among the earliest adopters of the private car.
And in the end I really do not think you would want to see these pro-motorist measures lifted. What most drivers really want is very simple: fewer other drivers on the road. No driver ever considers themselves as part of the problem. If you want to live in a country where everything is designed around the private car then you will need to move to somewhere with a great deal more space per capita. America.
After a century or more of private motoring we have exactly the same debates as we did all along, the handbill on display at Beaulieu is as relevant today as it ever was: your birthright is being taken form you by the motorist. Roads which were once simply public roads are now places where a pedestrian may not venture upon pain of death - and should death occur, the pedestrian will be blamed. We have the concept of "dangerous trees" into which presumably perfectly safe drivers crash.
I suspect that the fundamental problem is people casting the whole debate in terms of "us and them". There is no "us and them" - it's just us. There is no problem of the class of drivers which does not apply, at least to some extent, to every single member of the class.
Enabling the incompetent
A large tranche of pro-motorist legislation appears to me to be aimed at enabling the licensing of the widest possible group of people, including many who lack judgement, have slow reactions or are impaired in sundry ways.
I am still trying to find the reference that Dad used to quote, from a study by TRL which found that roughly one quarter of drivers fell into each of four categories: dissociated-active, dissociated-passive, injudicious and safe. That's another discussion, but there does nto seem to be much dissent from the view that a significant number of drivers fall below the standards which might normally be deemed acceptable.
- Speed limits exist to compensate for the fact that many drivers inappropriately judge speed. This has been a cause of friction since the dawn of motoring, the AA was founded in 1907 to warn drivers of speed traps.
- The driving test is insufficiently taxing, our test equates to the Stage 1 test in many other countries; the two-stage motorcycle test is much better designed to deliver competent road users, the driving test is there mainly to weed out the grossly incompetent. Allowing people to take in some cases many tens of tests is also an absurdity - if your standard of driving is that far below the baseline, retrying until one day you have an outlier in performance which is barely above the minimum seems on the face of it to be .
- Dangerous driving offences are ridiculously hard to prove, leaving many police forces going for the soft option of "driving without due care" - a catch-all term for general motorised idiocy. The problem here is that the consequences of this lack of care can vary from the trivial to the fatal, and the consequences very often do not fall on the driver at fault. New legislation such as " " are being introduced to address this, but the definition is semantically equivalent to while the penalties are vastly less. There is the possibility of motor manslaughter as a charge but it is too early to tell how commonly this will be used.
Enabling wider participation
Some legislation exists in order to ensure that as many people as possible can get their cars on the roads at once. Some of this crosses over, to an extent, with enabling the incompetent - if everybody drove courteously and cautiously then much of it would be unnecessary.
- Traffic lights are a classic pro-motorist measure - they exist to regulate the flow of motor traffic through a junction, and are essentially unnecessary in the absence of motor traffic. The phasing of traffic lights is occasionally a bone of contention, but this is really a distraction - the relative volumes of traffic at a junction can change far more quickly over time than the traffic engineers can monitor and keep up with.
- The all-red phase on some lights has been lengthened; this is in part a response to the fact that large numbers of drivers will go through a light as it changes and even after it changes to red, and there is a fair number who will now move away on red-amber. This makes it difficult for pedestrians to cross safely. Many busy roads have centre reservations and other separators that will require a pedestrian, unless they are lucky, to wait for two or more phases in order to complete a single crossing.
Revenues and duties
Revenues and duties are a necessary way of paying for infrastructure and offsetting the costs of an inherently selfish travel choice - private motoring - to society.
- Excise and fuel duties are now at a sustainable level. Previously the taxpayer was subsidising the private motorist (estimates up to £1,500 per car per year in the 1980s), an unsustainable situation. Now, the levels of revenue appear to cover the costs of infrastructure, injuries and other detriments.
- Some new roads and bridges are paid for by tolls. This allows the private sector to become involved and greatly speeds the provision of new infrastructure. It also provides in most cases a way for the better off to pay for less congested routes. It's not egalitarian but as anyone who has driven on the M6 toll road will tell you it certainly is pro-motorist.
- Road pricing schemes are being considered in many places. These will help to even out road use, encouraging people to travel outside peak hours, further extending the time that society can continue to allow private motoring as a mode of commuting despite its space inefficiency.
Enforcement of road legislation has always been resented by drivers - this is documented from the very earliest days of motor transport. A look at the enforcement outcomes, though, indicates that enforcement is pro-motorist: it is designed to continue the Government to allow as many people as possible to drive, through the mechanism of a well-regulated traffic environment which is within the competence of those allowed to drive.
- Speed enforcement, resented by the self-declared elite drivers, appears, despite their protestations to the contrary, to be catching bad drivers rather than good drivers who simply drive faster than the law allows. Mileage-adjusted, drivers with speeding endorsements are significantly more likely to be involved in collisions than those with no endorsements. Getting bad drivers off the road is a clarion cry of pro-motorist groups - it appears that is exactly what is happening.
- Other automated enforcement, such as red light cameras, targets an area which drivers always raise as dangerous. Admittedly they usually do this in the context of complaints about cyclists, but there seems to be little or no dissent from the view that jumping red lights is something drivers consider problematic.
- Parking enforcement keeps roads clear for through-traffic and maintains junction sight lines, allowing junctions to be negotiated more quickly.
- Decriminalised enforcement targets a specific complaint by drivers that they are not "criminals" - fair enough, then decriminalise minor infractions. This is also being done with some other offences in London which are now handled by TfL rather than the Metropolitan Police.
- "Hidden" cameras are the most pro-motorist measure of all. The definition of a sociopath might easily be stated as one who obeys society's rules only when he thinks he might be caught. Though many of the "hidden" cameras are obvious to those who are actually observant, and none of them are enforcing anything other than rules which everybody knows are in force, there can surely be few greater levellers than targeting those who flout the law simply because they think they can get away with it. Cast that question in terms of a cyclist who jumps red lights because he can get away with it and of course the average ABD member will readily agree, so surely the same must apply to all road users: if there is a framework of rules then those who apply anarchy are clearly a problem.
- Intoximeters were as resented as speed cameras when they were introduced, but a few decades of careful work has resulted in a situation where the banned drink-driver gets little if any sympathy. The danger was always obvious to the informed, the less well-informed took a lot of persuading. Speeding is little different. Part of the problem in both cases is the caused between recognition of a behaviour as dangerous, and engaging in that behaviour. There is a huge imperative to self-excuse any behaviour in which we ourselves engage.
Urban traffic controls
Urban traffic controls are a way of allowing motorists to continue to use residential streets despite the danger, cost and inconvenience this causes. A more equitable solution would be to close these streets to non-residents and force through traffic to use designated thoroughfares. That would be deemed anti-motorist, so instead we have traffic calming and congestion charging.
At one time there was a proposal to redraw the street map of London to include wide boulevards and thoroughfares, removing the tiny cramped streets. A perfect layout for a motorised traffic, you might think (though the congestion in Paris suggests perhaps not). This plan was vetoed by the land owners and its proposers forced to continue with a very much more modest scheme which involved only slight widening of the roads. This was in 1667 after the great fire. It is often suggested that congestion be cured by building new roads. No, that can't work. Congestion is largely a phenomenon of the urban environment; you can move it around but you can't cure it without destroying that which the road system is supposed to serve. Which buildings in London would you demolish for the cross-town expressways? And who would pay for the compulsory purchases?
- Congestion charging is one of the few pro-motorist measures introduced by . Red Ken is a well-known public transport advocate, so to find him enacting a piece of legislation which clears the hoi polloi from the streets leaving them to the better off, was a big surprise. The immediate result was that motor traffic started to flow much more freely in London.
- Build-outs ensure that the road width remains stable around bus-stops and other obstructions, smoothing traffic flow.
- Bus lanes facilitate flow of public transport and so encourage those making short journeys to leave the car at home, which leaves more road space for the car commuter. Without bus lanes it would be necessary to enact draconian legislation to ban cars from busy towns during peak periods.
- Closing rat-runs prevents people jumping the queue, which makes traffic flow more even around bottlenecks.
The hierarchy of road users
Another large portion of British road legislation underpins the idea, which has been in the ascendant since the 1930s but is now starting to weaken at least at the public policy level, of a hierarchy of road users with motorised users at the top. A lot of work is being done on redrawing this hierarchy with pedestrians at the top, as they should be, but for now we have a lot of "car supremacist" legislation.
- Pavement barriers also exist to reinforce the car-centric design of junctions. It is obvious that every yard a pedestrian walks imposes delay and costs energy, whereas drivers exert only control forces. Despite this, barriers are erected to keep pedestrians away from junctions to relieve drivers of the burden of vigilance. Interestingly, designs, where there are no "safety" barriers, actually appear to be safer. Barriers are also a crushing point for cyclists.
- Green Cross Code and other "road safety" training for children focuses very strongly on a culture of deference to motor traffic. On its face this seems quite sensible, but consider the effect on those children when they become adults and drivers themselves. The 1970s focus on making the roads "safer" by getting the vulnerable out of the way is a direct cause of the attitude obvious from the 1980s onwards that when drivers kill children on residential roads it is the fault of the parents or the children themselves. Why do we blame children for being children only in this context of the roads? Everywhere else there is a near-paranoid attitude towards child safety, on the roads uniquely this is reversed.
- Pedestrian underpasses, footbridges and so on are all designed to allow motor traffic to flow unimpeded while forcing pedestrians to work more in order to achieve it. Underpasses are hated by the vulnerable as places where assaults take place out of view. And yet militant motorists complain when pedestrian underpasses are removed and pedestrians allowed to cross at grade.