Tens of Thousands of Road Deaths Prevented by the British Police are Never Mentioned!

Here’s a very serious question for you.  Given that in Britain a police officer’s oath includes “the protection of life and property” and in America the police role is “to protect and serve” (my italics), and given that throughout the developed world far, far more human lives are lost in road crashes than in murders, why, oh why, are massive police contributions to countless saved lives on the roads not even known about, let alone discussed and praised?

.                                                 Hartside Pass. Early 1970s. (Photo: Cumbria Police)

It is, of course, a grim reality that the tragic death of a loved one is exactly that — a heartbreaking tragedy.  It would perhaps be simplistic to say the cause of any such loss is not relevant, of course it is, but the over-riding grief comes from the unbearable fact that a family member or dear friend is gone.  (Every police officer who has delivered a ‘death message’ to an unsuspecting family has had to do one of the worst tasks on the planet.)

At this point, it becomes important to know a little about how the key aspects of effective crash and casualty prevention operate.  For many years, road safety has been based upon a set of ‘E’ words, of which the key ones are:

  • Education (teaching safety to young people in particular, accurately)
  • Engineering (both better-designed roads and better-made vehicles)
  • Enforcement (to discourage the use or repetition of dangerous factors)
  • Emergency (preventing secondary collisions at the crash site, freeing trapped victims and swift removal of the seriously-injured to hospital)
  • Evaluation (by empirical research; what really works and what is myth?)

The first three items in the above list were the original “Three E’s” and each of these, if done appropriately and comprehensively, is capable of saving many lives, and in most of the developed nations this has happened on a very large scale.

(The current ‘Decade of Action for Road Safety’, 2011-2020, which sadly most people are still unaware of, is based upon the slightly different ‘Pillars’ of the task but that does not affect this article.)

Over the last 30-40 years, the most regular ‘leaders’ in this race to cut the number of road deaths have repeatedly been Sweden and Great Britain.  Indeed, since I first joined the police in the early 1970s the number of people killed each year on Britain’s roads alone has fallen by about three-quarters, from around 7,500 to below 2,000, despite the fact that there are now many times more vehicles on the road.  What proportion of this huge lifesaving success has been due specifically to police enforcement (or to education, or engineering)?  That is impossible to say, primarily because most crashes have multiple causative factors, but research shows that all three disciplines have been crucial in this stunning improvement.

One truly excellent example of the success of two of these factors (education and enforcement) working together can easily be seen in the way that drink driving is now dramatically less-common in Britain and therefore kills far fewer people than it did in the 1960s and 70s when the “Don’t Drink and Drive” message first appeared in television and radio advertisements. Since then, of course, the police have arrested hundreds of thousands of unthinking drivers for risking other people’s lives.  The most telling evidence of the overall success comes in the form of public perception and the fact that while decades ago it was seen as fairly harmless to have a few drinks and then drive home, people’s attitude is generally now the opposite… anyone who drinks and drives is a pariah.  The education aspect about drink-driving is almost complete but of course this is only one of many causes of fatal road crashes.

That brings me to the three final points of this post:

Firstly, I would suggest that while many people have venomously criticised traffic patrol police officers over the years, those officers are lifesavers — it’s as simple as that.  There is no such thing as “pointless speeding tickets,” blah, blah, blah.

Secondly, throughout the last 100 years or so, the number of road deaths in Britain each year has vastly exceeded the number of murders — though less-so nowadays since the huge successes in cutting those road deaths — so if reducing unnecessary deaths is important to society, it is obvious where the greatest efforts need to be focused.

Finally and distressingly, however, we all know that what are now called Roads Policing Units around the UK have been decimated by financial cutbacks.  What most people still do not know is that not only has the rate of continued improvement in reducing road deaths now evaporated, specifically due to the financial cutbacks in question, but the trend in the annual numbers of road deaths is actually on the increase once more.  And research has now proved the dare-I-say very obvious link to reduced enforcement!

The inspiration for me to write this piece came from the advert for this episode of the BBC ‘Crimewatch’ television programme, about crime on the roads and “the devastating impact of dangerous driving,” a danger that can only be reduced by having an adequate number of highly-trained officers out there patrolling the roads and saving yet more lives by doing so!

‘Steve Shearwater’



Copyright, 16 March 2017, Eddie Wren (alias author ‘Steve Shearwater’)