by Paul Gillett
Since this edition of Roadworthy marks the 60th anniversary of NELE, it prompted me to think about the changes that have been seen in road traffic over that time, and to speculate on what might change over the next few decades (I don’t trust my crystal ball to see as far as 60 years ahead – I bought it from Woolworths and look what happened to them…) In 1957, I lived on the outskirts of Brighton on an estate built about five years before that. I would just have transferred from Infants to Juniors at the local Primary school. The headmaster and two other teachers drove to school in their own cars; the rest walked or relied on the local bus service. In our avenue of about 120 houses, no more than half a dozen residents owned cars. However, those bore little comparison with what’s available today. True, they had a body, four wheels and an engine, windows and seats, but there the resemblance ends. No crumple zones, radial tyres, fuel-injection, screen heaters, screen washers or seat-belts in those days, let alone ABS, catalytic exhausts, climate control, auto-wipers, airbags or GPS! The only switch on the steering wheel was the horn button; in-car radio (Long or Medium Wave only) was an expensive optional extra, and rather than electric motors, side windows on luxury models were hand-wound rather than the cheaper sliding panels.
The roads were largely single carriageway, but at least there was no speed limit as it would have been largely pointless, most cars only achieving about 60mph on a good day. Mind you, traffic was significantly less then – the national mileage each year was less than a fifth of today’s figures. But if you thought that the roads were safer, you’d be sadly mistaken – in 1957, there were 5,550 road deaths and 64,000 serious injuries. One contributory factor was that many drivers had acquired their licence without taking a driving test. Although driving tests had been introduced in 1935, they had been suspended between 1939 to 1946 because of the war. However, the state of the roads didn’t help either. The road network had largely been neglected during the war and a scientific approach to road signs and road markings was yet to emerge; drivers needed both keen observation and excellent vehicle control skills; many of them had neither! No wonder that the IAM came into being to help raise the standards of road use!
Jump forward to the present. Our cars are more comfortable, perform better and incorporate a significantly greater number of safety features. New drivers have to pass a rigorous driving test (UK has one of the best in the world). Our roads, despite lack of maintenance in many areas, are generally betterdesigned for safety.
. As a consequence, the UK has far fewer accidents today than 60 years ago 1,616 deaths and 20,038 seriously injured in 2015, the last year for which complete figures are available. That’s about a quarter of 1957’s Killed/Seriously Injured figures despite a five-fold increase in traffic. The re-branded IAM RoadSmart continues to contribute to Road Safety with its Advanced Driving Course, but it increasingly discharges its Road Safety objectives by getting “better driving” messages seen by more and more drivers who otherwise wouldn’t have heard about us. What of the future? Well, if we were starting from scratch today, who would accept the introduction of a transport network that kills and injures so many people? Or one where significant items of expenditure (cars) sit idle for most of the day? Instead, we’d design an affordable, high-quality public transport system for the majority of journeys, supported by a fleet of well-maintained vehicles available for short-term hire for the occasional trip that requires it. For safety reasons, those hire cars would probably be equipped with some selfdriving capabilities to guard against our mistakes. This seems all the more likely when one reads the Mayor’s Transport Strategy, currently out for consultation. Within NELE, we are already conscious that the nature of driving in London is changing; the cost of buying, maintaining and (more importantly) insuring a car for a driver under 24 puts it beyond the reach of many youngsters with entry-level pay packages. As a consequence, many Londoners are deferring driving lessons until they are over 25. The imminent pollution charge, when added to the so-called congestion charge will deter ever more drivers from venturing into the Capital in an older car, further deterring those on limited income from becoming drivers as the cost of a more modern car will be beyond their means.As someone who enjoys his driving, this vision of the future fills me with dread. However, I try to look on the bright side. I reckon it’s going to take about 20 years before the motoring infrastructure is ready for the introduction of fully-automated driving environments. Complete changeover is likely to take a further 10 years. I therefore intend to make the most of the next 20 years during which driving can still be fun. With the help of my fellow NELE’s membership, I hope to pass on that enthusiasm to the next one or two generations of drivers who may be the last ones to have that privilege!