23 February 2023

Improving Pedestrian Safety


A few weeks ago, the Scotsman reported that Police Scotland had issued a safety plea following the death of six pedestrians in only 13 days on Scotland’s roads.

News of these fatalities comes just after the one-year anniversary of the updated Highway Code coming into force. The new rules incorporated into the Code were designed to protect vulnerable road users, especially pedestrians. So, why don’t they seem to be working?

The law in Scotland acknowledges that pedestrians require greater protection than other road users. Accordingly, the courts attach greater responsibility to vehicle drivers on the basis that their mode of transport is also potentially a dangerous machine which can do a lot of damage, if operated irresponsibly. It follows that more responsibility needs to lie with drivers to try and level up the risk to more vulnerable road users, including pedestrians.

When updated in January 2022, the Highway Code was revised to include rules that formalise this balance of responsibilities and protections in line with the law. The new rules specifically state that along with cyclists and motorcyclists, the road users most at risk from road traffic are pedestrians. It states:

“In any interaction between road users, those who can cause the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger or threat they pose to others.”

The Code specifically states that motorists MUST reduce the danger they pose to pedestrians and stresses that they should be aware of the risk that pedestrians will step into the road unexpectedly. The Code gives 11 examples of when to drive CAREFULLY AND SLOWLY including in residential areas, turning at junctions, passing parked vehicles etc. The rules are specifically designed to encourage drivers to pay more attention and reduce the risk of injury to vulnerable road users.

In 2021, there were 770 pedestrian casualties in Scotland and 95% of them occurred in built-up areas. If complied with, new rules which stress the need for increased care and decreased speeds, will hopefully lead to a reduction in those figures. In the meantime, attention should be given to encouraging compliance.

In their plea to improve pedestrian safety, the police urged motorists to ensure that their headlights were clean and working and to drive with particular care in areas where people may be on foot or crossing roads. They also urged pedestrians to wear reflective or fluorescent clothes and to be mindful of their surroundings and not put themselves at risk.

However, are these pleas by the police consistent with the behaviours promoted by the new rules in the Code? Do they encourage compliance of the rules? In answering this, it’s helpful to look at the most common causes of pedestrian accidents and reflect on what measures might actually be needed to improve safety.

On average, 37 pedestrians were killed annually on Scotland’s roads between 2017 and 2021. Between the months of November and February, the fatalities were 30% higher than the monthly average, meaning pedestrians are more at risk in the Winter months and in the dark. The advice from the police to pedestrians to wear fluorescent clothing tries to address this. The logic isn’t hard to grasp; the more visible you are, the less likely you are of being hit by a car. However, is this actually a realistic proposal?
As a fashion-conscious nation, it seems unrealistic to imagine or expect Joe Public to heed the advice and start wearing fluorescent clothing during the long hours of Winter darkness whilst going about their day-to-day lives.

So, what other measures can be implemented to encourage compliance with the Code and promote pedestrian safety? The Police also advised pedestrians to be aware of their surroundings and for drivers to pay particular attention in areas where people may be on foot or crossing roads. This is key. There is no point in being visible if people aren’t paying attention.

A recent study by Transport Scotland revealed that the most common contributory factor in all road accidents as reported by the police was “driver/rider errors or reactions”. This was referenced in 57% of all reported accidents with “failed to look properly” the most common sub-category (referenced in 28% of reporting). By contrast, travelling too fast for the conditions or excessive speed was reported in 11% of all reported accidents. Clearly then, being distracted and not paying proper attention is now a bigger cause of accidents than speed.

When you stop to think about it, distraction being the most frequent cause of most road accidents is hardly surprising. We’re a nation of distracted beings. In 2021, 85% of the British population over 16yrs old were smartphone users. Most of the population are often (constantly) making phone calls, sending and receiving messages and emails, listening to music, watching videos, taking & sending photos, reading articles, updating social media; the list goes on.

With such constant distraction, how many of us are really managing to drive our vehicles in accordance with the new rules of the Highway Code – “looking and anticipating pedestrians stepping out into the road; slowing down and driving carefully past parked vehicles; giving way to pedestrians on the pavement; reversing into a side road and looking all around for pedestrians crossing or waiting.”

The stats are telling us that one of the biggest causes of road accidents is “drivers failing to look properly.” We’re not looking properly because we’re constantly distracted and such distractions are evidently putting lives at risk. The new rules in the Highway code have the potential to increase the safety of our most vulnerable road users and prevent more devastating losses of life like those reported recently. However, the rules will only have the desired effect, if they can capture the full attention of drivers to look properly at them as well as the road ahead.

Jo Clancy


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