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Stop, look and listen

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Tufty the Squirrel may no longer be teaching us about road safety, but his good work continues through council road safety departments.

Fans of the BBC’s Life on Mars series may have thought they were time travelling too when they saw DCI Gene Hunt dress up in a Tufty costume to evade capture in one episode.

The cute squirrel remains a promoter of road safety, even though the Tufty Club no longer boasts the 60,000 child members it did in its mid-1960s’ heyday. But while the Tufty Club might have dwindled over the years, councils have been successful in reducing road accidents, and most are on course to meet the government’s 2010
casualty reduction targets.

Tufty was born in 1953, just as private motoring began to be commonplace. Since then, better road engineering, safer vehicles and relentless awareness campaigns have led to fewer accidents even while traffic volumes have grown sevenfold. According to the Department for Transport, there were 797 children killed in road accidents in 1953, which has reduced to 169 in 2006.

The people who have delivered much of this progress work in council road safety departments, in a profession straddling education, engineering, publicity and traffic management. It needs officers from a variety of backgrounds who can work as a team.

Malcolm Burns, chair of the Local Authority Road Safety Officers Association (LARSOA), says: “Most local authorities are on target to meet the casualty reductions by 2010, many had made it by 2006 and are now pushing even lower.”

Achieving that needs a combination of endless preaching of basic road-safety messages, together with creative thinking by officers about how to solve specific problems. Mr Burns, who heads road safety at Wiltshire CC, says that although top-tier councils have targets and a legal duty to promote road safety, they have been left considerable freedom to decide how to deliver this according to local conditions, both in what they do and how they organise.

He sees his field as “an education” rather then engineering specialism because it’s mostly to do with reinforcement of the road-safety message from the cradle to the grave.

The ‘cradle’ end is the easier part, since road safety officers have a captive audience when they address school children while teachers can assist in delivering awareness campaigns. It is young adults and elderly people who pose particular headaches for road safety teams, since both are often convinced that they know what they are doing and are not
receptive to anyone telling them otherwise.

“There are a lot of young-driver projects because there is a high casualty rate,” Mr Burns says. “Of all road casualties, 20% are in the 17-24 age group but only 10% of driving licence holders are in that age group and casualties peak in the 17-21 range, who are a very difficult to reach group.”

Some councils have begun to offer ‘pass plus’, additional tuition for those who have recently gained driving licences. This covers topics that go beyond the normal test, such as motorways and driving in adverse weather. This has run for three years, and young drivers who have been through it are “highly supportive”, according to Mr Burns, though he concedes it may attract those who are careful drivers anyway.

“Apart from the cycling proficiency test, you don’t see a return for several years on road-safety training and one hopes this programme will expand, though it is too early to know results,” he says.

Neil Cunliffe, road safety group manager at Lancashire CC, has developed a ‘pre-pass’ scheme for aspiring drivers, in which road safety officers work with them, their parents and driving instructors. He thinks the occasional pre-driver training sometimes offered is largely useless, and has devised the free programme to complement the work of professional instructors. It is aimed at anyone who has ever come close to nervous collapse by trying to teach their teenage offspring to drive.

“There is no point in one-off ad hoc stuff like pre-driver training it does nothing for road safety,” he says. “What you need is the complete pre-pass scheme where we work with parents, driving instructors and the young people so that if parents are going to sit in the car and give their children some extra driving practice they know what they should be doing. Statistics show those taught professionally do much better.”

Lancashire also offers a service to assess occupational risk for companies with vehicle fleets. Mr Cunliffe says: “Companies need to know the risks and how to act on them because the Corporate Manslaughter Act will take effect on 6 April, and no one wants a reputation for killing their staff.”

The Lancashire team has 21 full-time staff. They are, says Mr Cunliffe, all managers charged with devising programmes.
“We do not have people going into schools to give one-off talks, instead they work with teachers and give them guidance on the messages they need to deliver, because they are the experts at reaching children,” he says.

“My 21 staff cannot make any meaningful impact on our 500 schools, so we work through those who can.”

One thing that has changed in relation to schools’ work is the advent of Bikeability, a government programme to regulate
training in cycling proficiency.

This has had some perverse effects. Alan Kennedy, road safety manager at Durham CC, says: “We have 300 schools, many in rural areas, so it is difficult to get round to them all. We used to train teachers to do this work, but we cannot do that since Bikeability came in because it requires trainers to have attended a four-day course and to teach all three levels of proficiency.

“Few teachers are willing to do that, so in some cases there is less training now available for children, though where it works Bikeability is better because children get training under supervision on roads, not just in a school playground.”

Councils are expected to encourage cycling, but separated cycle paths are rarely practical in built-up areas where road widths are already fully used.

Durham though has an unusual solution. “We’ve lot of disused railway lines that used to serve coal mines and we are converting them to cycle paths,” Mr Kennedy says. “Because they were rail lines they are almost flat, and it will be fantastic when it’s finished. You’ll be able to get almost anywhere by bike.”

There are some skill shortages in road safety, though the most intractable recruitment problem is that of school crossing patrols, which councils are legally obliged to maintain. The LARSOA’s Mr Burns says: “It is very complex since we do everything from recruitment to organisation, and there are not that many people who want to work for a few hours a day during term time. There is a big shortage of people willing to step into the road for a few pounds.”

It is hard to pin down which professional skills are in shortage because of the diversity of those employed. “All kinds of people become road safety officers,” Mr Burns says. “There are some new graduates, many ex-teachers and others who have retrained from other careers.”

Lancashire’s Mr Cunliffe says his problem is “finding the right people who can creatively use the freedom and flexibility
we have to think of new approaches”.

Councils have a good story to tell on road safety, but keeping it that way means constantly finding new methods to get across old messages about staying safe.

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