6: Roadside plaques to mark fatalities

For the last ten years, a total of over 50,000 people have been killed on the roads of Britain. Yet the carnage continues, like ritual Aztec sacrifices, on the altar of the motor car, albeit geographically-random rather than site-specific. How is it that we are able to pretend that most of these highly distressing so-called ‘accidents’ have not happened? How is it that, though of course not admitted aloud, these deaths are viewed as an acceptable price to pay in order to derive the benefits of using motorised transport?

One of the most effective ways of making it easy to put road accidents involving personal injury ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is by removing all the evidence of their occurrence quickly. Go back three hours after an accident and you will be hard-pressed to see anything untoward: drivers will be speeding again on their merry way to their destinations.

The typical course of events is as follows: the police arrive to record the facts for inclusion in the local accident statistics, the ambulance service is called to take the injured person to hospital or the body to the mortuary, the local garage removes the vehicle for repair or disposal, AA Road Watch is informed when traffic becomes congested so that motorists listening to the radio can be alerted to avoid the scene of the accident, the fire brigade is called in to clean up the mess, washing down the road surface as necessary, and the road maintenance people to make good any damage. All make their contribution with the result that few people see anything that may upset them and as many people as possible have no knowledge of any untoward event.

Ten years ago, I put forward the idea that, provided the particular relatives agreed, a circular black plaque recording details of each fatality, similar in size to the blue plaques set in the walls of buildings to commemorate past famous residents, should be erected at the roadside. A meeting with the Chair of the GLC Transport Committee and his Officers in 1984 to discuss it revealed concerns and reservations, principally on psychological grounds, which were sufficient to prevent even a pilot project being tried out. More recently, a simple cross marked in the tarmac at the appropriate location has been suggested.

Yet, implementing either of these proposals could have a salutary effect on public perception and awareness of these tragic events, especially as inevitably the signs would accumulate over time. It seems likely that it would lead to more ready acceptance by the motoring public of the wide range of measures open to government both to minimise the risk of people being killed or injured in road accidents and to reduce their number (not the same thing) – introducing much lower speed limits and ensuring that sufficient resources are invested in enforcing them, promoting developments on a scale which do not encourage car use, making safe provision for walking and cycling which are the modes of transport incurring least risk for other road users, and so on.

To date, in this country, no local authority has chosen to act on this approach. Why? Are they too squeamish, too frightened of upsetting the motoring public by drawing more attention to the weekly toll of 80 men, women and children killed and 1000 seriously injured in road accident, nearly all of which result from collisions with motor vehicles, with of course the car being the major contributor? Is it that they wish to ensure that the carnage is kept as much as possible out of sight and thereby out of mind? Or will some local authority take the lead?

Originally published in Social Innovations – A Compendium (eds. Nicholas Albery et al.) 1993. (Proposal for a plaque to be sited where a fatality has occurred provided relatives acquiesce.)

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