Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Hell on wheels: young drivers in rural Britain

Having recently driven past yet another serious accident on the bit of the B1383 that runs through the parish of Ugley, I was not surprised to see my suspicions about road safety in rural areas confirmed by a study produced by researchers at the University of Bristol’s Department of Social Medicine.

What is particularly interesting about this study, imaginatively titled The Grim Reaper’s road map: An atlas of mortality in Britain, is that the results are almost totally ‘counter intuitive’ regarding road safety, whilst at the same time indicating clearly where the greatest problem areas lie.

You would think that road safety became more of an issue the more traffic there was. You would therefore imagine that your chances of becoming a casualty would be greatest in our most dense conurbations. Who would not feel more challenged by the busy streets of London than, say, the open roads of the Pennines?

Actually, the worst place for road deaths in mainland Britain is the north of Scotland. In fact, the Grim Reaper’s map of fatalities is an almost perfect inverse map of urbanization. The more rural the area, the higher the rate of road deaths, whilst some of the safest places to be are almost anywhere inside the M25.

As I have argued previously, the reason for this is simple —within these urban areas, it is very hard to travel fast enough in a car to kill either yourself or anyone else. It can be done, but it is a challenge! By contrast, if you are driving along a typical rural B road at 50mph and cross into the path of someone travelling the other way at the same speed (as someone did recently near the site of the same accident referred to above), you are in serious trouble.

The obvious question this raises is about administrative policy. As anyone who drives in London will tell you, the difficulties of the traffic are elevated to nightmare level by the proliferation of ‘traffic calming’ measures —or as I preferred to call them when I lived there, ‘driver enraging’ measures. Of course, it might be argued that it is precisely these which have created the safer conditions identified by the Bristol study, but for the most part, as a former London driver, I would suggest they had little impact, save on the springs of cars and the patience and backbones of their occupants.

However, the same study also identifies another factor which seems scarcely to be taken into account by public policy, namely that, as Mark Easton from the BBC identifies, “The average age of a road death victim is 36.9, and three-quarters of those who die are men —predominantly in their teens, 20s and 30s” (although the pattern for female road deaths precisely mimics that for males, but at a lower level). It has also been established by studies elsewhere that the chances of a young driver having an accident increase proportionately with the number of passengers.

Yet I know of no official policy or campaign addressing this issue. Safety campaigns and measures address speed and alcohol, and of these, speed is taken the more seriously (you still cannot be stopped and random breath-tested in the UK!)

My own view is that safety campaigns largely miss the point, by addressing legal driving rather than safe driving. The two are not always the same! Moreover, the emphasis is on penalties, not rewards. Thus, for example, the biggest no-claims discounts one can get on motor insurance are typically 60% for five years without a claim. But what if there were a subsidized 90% discount for nine years without a claim, paid for from the road safety budget? Wouldn’t that do something to encourage safer driving, not only by rewarding the individual but by giving safe driving a more public reward?

Equally, couldn’t young drivers (eg under 25) be restricted to carrying only one passenger unless, say, that person is named on their insurance? Thus young people with families could still drive them around, or give a lift to mum and dad, but they wouldn’t be able just to pick up three mates.

Most importantly of all, we need to encourage a culture of good driving, and that is about much more than speed. Above all (dare I say it?), it includes loving other road users as much as you love yourself.

Revd John Richardson
28 July 2009

Anonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select the 'Anonymous' profile, then type in a couple of letters, select 'preview', then close the preview box and delete these letters.

When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.


  1. Hi John,

    Some of the restrictions on young drivers you suggested have been introduced in NSW:

    Roger Gallagher

  2. Roger, thanks, that's exactly the kind of thing I mean -and for those who can't be bothered to go there, this is the relevant bit:

    P1 peer passenger condition

    From 1 July 2007, all provisional P1 drivers under the age of 25 must not drive a vehicle with more than one passenger (other than the driver) under 21 years old between 11pm and 5am. This restriction is referred to as the peer passenger condition.

    Drivers of emergency vehicles are exempt from the peer passenger condition while driving the vehicle in the performance of their duties.
    An exemption from the one passenger condition will be only granted in exceptional circumstances. You must provide reasons why you have an exceptional circumstance to have your exemption request considered.
    Peer passenger exemption

    And (sic) exemption from the peer passenger condition may be granted if:

    * You are required as part of your employment responsibilities to transport passengers between 11pm and 5am and more than one of these passengers is, or likely to be, under 21 years of age.
    * You can demonstrate a need to drive certain immediate family members between 11pm and 5am and there are no alternative options.
    * You volunteer in community service work (eg lifeline counselling) that requires the transport of passengers between 11pm and 5am and more than one of these passengers is, or likely to be, under 21 years of age.

  3. The NSW legislation would put an end (at least after 11 pm) to the famed Newcastle (NSW) custom of roaming the streets eight abreast in a hot FJ Holden:


    Mark B.

  4. John

    Probably the major reasons why deaths are highest in remote rural areas is because accidents are not found speedily enough and emergency repsonse teams take longer to arrive.
    - So the police tell me.
    Phil Barnett

  5. I would suggest that deaths in rural areas may also be due to drivers feeling freer from the 'eyes' of prying speed cameras and less risk of running across a patrol car.
    They may drink more alcohol for this reason too. Human nature what it is; if you don't think you are going to get caught...

    I call all transgressors of the rules of the road "Highway Code Breakers"

    Nic Houghton