Keith Laybourn: How cars won the battle for our highways

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New book examines an unequal contest that saw the automobile drive pedestrians off the roads.

THE advent of the automobile exerted revolutionary change on British society in the 20th century, ending with the motorist driving the pedestrian off the road.

It was a battle that would lead to segregation, as pedestrians gradually lost their ancient right to saunter on the highways. It was also a process that would transform childhood, with youngsters being forced off the streets, and one that brought about a revolution in policing, as officers moved from their beats to patrol cars, or, as was often said “from their feet to their seats”.

The removal of the need for early motorists to be preceded by a man on foot waving a red flag in 1896 paved the way for the motor age, which saw the 20 motorised vehicles in Britain increase to more than two million by 1931, and about 35 million today. By the 1930s there were 7,000 deaths and 220,000 injuries a year, and by the early 1950s those figures rose even higher before falling dramatically from the 1960s onwards.

The police naturally aimed to control such carnage by imposing speed limits and setting up speed traps which were vehemently opposed by the AA and the RAC, whose scouts warned drivers of their presence. In defending their members, the motorising organisations searched for scapegoats, including women and a small number of young men with speeding sports cars.

They argued that the motorist was the most oppressed class in the country. Focusing his attention on these minorities, one middle-class motorist alleged, in 1938, that “aggressive women take a fiendish delight in weaving in and out of traffic, frightening poor male drivers by their recklessness and verve. Many a woman takes out her hate of her husband or her sexual dissatisfaction in reckless driving.”

The AA and RAC, and numerous other organisations often blamed pedestrians for their own deaths – referring to them as “suicidal” or “palsied pedestrians”. The National Safety First Association (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents since 1941), emerged as the representative of the motorist groups to emphasise the need for pedestrians to be channelled into crossing points and to learn the Highway Code, which was first published in 1931.

To improve pedestrian awareness, the police visited schools to offer road safety lessons, conduct cycling proficiency tests and organise Highway Code Competitions. Indeed, road safety became the fourth ‘R’ of education. Children heard, on record, Gracie Fields singing: “When you cross the road day or night, Beware the dangers that loom in sight, Look to the left, and look again to the right. Then you’ll never, never get run over.”

At the beginning of the 1920s there were no traffic lights, and no rules of the road. It took time to establish rules that increasingly segregated motorists from pedestrians. White lines in the middle of the road were originally meant to warn pedestrians to look both ways before crossing. They failed, but the police and the authorities quickly realised that motorists were taking note of them and were no longer hogging the crown of the road.

After several schemes, in which both red and green were used to denote go, a more standardised system of red, amber, green was used to move from stop to go – although this did lead to the phenomenon of the “amber gambler” and motorists “racing the green”.

It has often been argued that the police favoured the motorist in this battle for the roads of Britain because the outcome was to segregate the motorists from the pedestrian, a move more or less confirmed with the opening of the motorways in the late 1950s.

However, the police were often in conflict with the motorists – whether it be by controlling the flow of traffic through motor patrols, operating unmarked cars or, from the late 1960s, carrying out breathalyser tests on suspected drink-drivers.

To be more effective the police moved officers from the beat to police cars to manage crime and traffic offences through the Unit Beat Police system of the mid-1960s, better known, though inaccurately so, to the public as Z-Cars, not least owing to the BBC series of the same name.

The battle for the roads of Britain came to be an unequal context between the motorists and the pedestrian, mediated by the police.