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Don’t be rude on the road (or, how Governments have very short memories)

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Scotland’s Transport Minister Keith Brown has unveiled a “ground-breaking” new campaign aimed at road users. The £500,000 promotional campaign for the ‘Niceway Code’ launches on 5th August and will use posters and TV ads to ask motorists, cyclists and pedestrians to be nice to each other.

The WordPress-based website for the Scottish Government campaign says the Niceway Code is a “groundbreaking, first of its kind, campaign encouraging road users to treat each other with consideration.”

Governments, and their promotional bodies, have short memories. Far from being “groundbreaking”, the new campaign is the latest in a long line of historical campaigns and exhortations, none of which have done much to halt the slaughter on the roads.

John Burns, MP, president of the Local Government Board, speaking at the banquet ending the third Permanent International Association Road Congress in 1913, urged motorists to show “in the most sportsmanlike way the spirit of the road, the true spirit of the road, that is, the inherent right of everyone to the road…and in the travelling they undertake, [show] greater regard for some people than motorists are inclined to show.”

Such “sportsmanlike” behaviour was codified in 1931 with the release of The Highway Code, a document produced by the motoring lobby and which originally had little basis in statute law. In the Code’s foreword, the minister of transport, Herbert Morrison said the booklet was a “code of good manners to be observed by all courteous and considerate persons.”

The Highway Code introduced rules for pedestrians and cyclists, too, establishing the principle that all road users were responsible for road safety

A push for better manners on the road led the Home Office to introduce ‘courtesy cops’, 800 policemen on motorbikes who chided motorists – via megaphones – for failing to live up to the high standards expected. Cyclists riding more than two abreast were also shouted at, no doubt politely. Motorists were also told to give cyclists more room: “Cyclists should always be given a wide berth,” a courtesy cop told a Daily Herald reporter in 1938. “They should not be passed too closely.” The squad’s slogan was “Persuasion not process.”

In the 1950s, there were press and poster campaigns urging good road manners, including ‘Be A Better Driver’, ‘Mind How You Go’ and ‘Good Driving Pays’. A 1960 black and white public information film used George, a cartoon character motorist to show how the Central Office of Information expected motorists to be ‘gentlemen’. The voiceover for ‘Don’t be rude on the road’ even brought in the ‘nice’ word: “How nice it would be if people showed a little more courtesy…a little more patience.”

George, “our cheery knight of the road”, doored both a cyclist and a pedestrian but only saw the error of his ways when a motorist ripped his open door from its hinges.

Did all of this mild exhortation have the desired effect. Naturally, no.

Road deaths peaked at 7,343 in 1934, not exceeded until the 8000 killed on the roads in 1966. During a parliamentary debate in July 1939, Captain Wallace, the new UK Minister of Transport said:

“An important contribution has recently been made to the investigation of this tragic problem. It has been made by a Select Committee set up in another place under the chairmanship of Lord Alness…There is no difference of opinion as to the urgency of reducing the number of accidents on our roads. There are, however, very considerable divergences of view as to the most suitable methods of doing so…”

Captain Wallace stressed that one of the solutions would be better manners on the road:

“If by some means all the people who use the roads, and that means pedestrians and cyclists as well as motorists, could be induced to be unselfish, considerate and circumspect on all occasions, there would be no road accident problem as we know it; but I fully realise that this is a counsel of perfection…Education, judicious propaganda and the development of a system of co-operation between road users of all classes seem to me to offer the best prospects of an early and substantial reduction in the tragic toll of death and injury on the roads.”

Not everybody believed motorists could be relied upon to act responsibly, given the huge amount of power available at the depression of an accelerator pedal. Megan Arfon Lloyd George MP, daughter of former premier David Lloyd George, replied to Captain Wallace:

“I believe that a great deal can be done to neutralise what the right hon. Gentleman calls human frailty. A good deal can be done by propaganda, by example, and, above all — the right hon. Gentleman did not mention this — by penalty, to improve the conduct of the motorist and of the pedestrian. There are many of us who would like to see the punishment fit the crime more often. Many of us would like to see severer sentences on motorists who inflict injury through sheer callousness and recklessness. I believe some more heavy, but quite just, sentences would save more lives than any number of circulars issued by the Ministry. It will be very difficult to deal with these cases in a satisfactory way until you have special courts to deal with motoring offences. But although you may have powerful deterrents, erect your signs, issue your warnings and have your patrols, the reckless and foolish driver is not going to be radically altered by any psychological process devised by the Minister, and certainly not by any legislation passed by this House.”

Miss (later Lady) Lloyd George said the best remedy would be to build roads specifically designed for motorcars: “The Minister said, “Yes, but if you cannot adapt the roads to the drivers, you must adapt men to the roads.” I suggest that the roads must be made for man, and not man for the roads. If he follows that principle he will be able to reduce the accidents far better.”

MPs did not tend to favour draconian fines for motorists, or restrictions of any kind. In the 1939 debate, Cecil Poole, MP Birmingham Perry Barr, urged the Home Office to put more “courtesy cops” on the road:

“I should like to see more courtesy “cops” on our roads, and fewer motorists being “copped.” I hope we shall have an extension of these courtesy road patrols and that the motorist will get a warning instead of being persecuted as he is at the present time.”

Persecuted? Far from it. The House of Lords’ Alness Report, published in March 1939, was heavily biased towards motorists. The report made 231 recommendations, including that children of ten and under should be banned from public cycling, and that segregation on the roads should be carried out with utmost urgency. Cyclists, said the report, should get high-quality wide cycle tracks and that, once built, cyclists should be forced to use them. Pedestrians were also to be corralled and fined for daring to cross the road at points other than designated crossing points. Motorists, decided the motoring Lords, should be treated with a light touch by the law.

Sir Phillip Game, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in the late 1930s, was of the opinion that “big fish” should be punished but “small fry” should be allowed to dart at will. The Daily Herald agreed with this:

“Road users generally would be glad of more of the dangerous drivers they see every day were hailed to court instead of those comparatively innocent folks whose only offence is driving at 34 miles an hour when they should be doing 30 or less.”

Of course, exhortation campaigns to be “nice” on the roads are doomed to failure when society at large deems it’s perfectly OK to flout certain motoring laws.

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