Eugene Suggett: Mustn’t upset the drivers
Sunday 19 August, and a glorious walk in West Surrey. The place, near Godalming, is silently tranquil; having left the field-paths to head to a pub, we are in a country lane, pavementless like most rural roads. The occasional cottage looks anciently rustic, and you half-expect a horse-drawn hay-cart to loom into sight. Instead there appears a massive car, which comes straight at us at speed as if trying to make some point, slows, passes us very narrowly indeed, and then roars off; but not before some buttock-brained occupant yells, ‘Get on the verge’. (Such verge as there is at this point is near near-vertical.) Why do some drivers not know that on roads there is a right of way on foot (and on horseback and bicycles) as well as there is in vehicles?
Perhaps it’s because drivers pay road-tax, that some of them think they have rights and that pedestrians have none. They must view it as a form of toll that buys them precedence over non-drivers. But pedestrians as well as motorists pay taxes for highways to be maintained. The car is a luxury item on which, like on beer and other things, the government has chosen to place an excise duty. I pay the tax on ale (it is unavoidable, I find – old Ron at the Bull dutifully includes it in the price), but I have never thought this major fiscal contribution has bought me precedence (or other advantages, such as jumping the queue at the off-licence or the doctors’) over the drinkers of tax-free fruit-juice.
Or perhaps it’s some false association with the ‘kerb drill’, even though that’s about crossing, not moving along, the road. In 1942 the National “Safety First” Association (now RoSPA) introduced this kerb drill – to stop children from being run over when crossing the road. ‘At the kerb, halt. Eyes right. Eyes left. If all clear, quick march.’ Modified since (‘right again’), it has no doubt saved many lives, even if it puts all of the life-preserving onus on the pedestrian, including the small children at which it was primarily aimed, and none of it on the driver. (A typically British solution, somehow: identify the harmless, the innocent and the most vulnerable, and make any mishap their fault. Mustn’t upset the drivers.) The trouble is, the kerb drill (now codified as Rule 7 of the Highway Code) has caused generations of infants to think that the right to be on the road belongs to motorists only. It’s conditioned rising generations to think that once they’re in the driving-seat, they have the legitimate expectation that pedestrians will bloody well keep out of their way – that they can expect to drive along any road, from a trunk road to a town street or a country lane, without ever being impeded by the passage of people on foot, even those exercising their right to walk along roads. (But what as a walker are you supposed to do? You can force yourself into the roadside hedge, you can step into the ditch; but sometimes neither option is available. They must think you can fly, some of them.)
But whatever escalates it, reports are increasing of a rise in anti-pedestrian aggression. Walkers on roads without footways, rural ones in particular, get abuse merely for being on them. In some countries – Switzerland, for example – the onus on most roads is on drivers to give way to pedestrians. In Holland on many rural roads, there’s no central white line; instead there’s one each side, leaving a metre margin for pedestrians. Drivers have full use of the middle of the road, but when other traffic approaches they have to cross the white line, causing them to consider whether there are pedestrians in the margin. The result is that drivers must go slowly, being ready to negotiate with oncoming vehicles, making the option of driving flat-out too reckless. None of that here.
The Ramblers have not quite forgotten the evening of 20 May 1976, when five members were killed by a car driving at 55–70 mph in a lane near Kettering. The clear evidence is that the group was doing all the right things – walking on the right, keeping well in to the roadside – but the attitude of the police and the coroner, for all the Highway Code saying that you should never drive so fast you cannot stop well within the distance you can see to be clear, was that the walkers had themselves in part to blame. (Round about that time, one west-country newspaper reported this: ‘A rise of 14 per cent in deaths and serious injuries on Devon and Cornwall roads was blamed by police chiefs on the slow reactions of elderly pedestrians.’)
The DfT is currently consulting about speed limits, and about lowering them on rural roads. That will be a small step in the right direction, though some of the motoring lobby like to say that ‘speed is not a factor in accidents’. Even if they are right (which this blogger rather doubts), it remains no joke being passed on a lane with no footway by cars six inches away doing 60. If we are going to get people driving less and walking more, it won’t happen by making it lethal for them to travel in the countryside except encased in a vehicle. ‘Many of us are motorists for some of the time and almost all of us are pedestrians for much of the time,’ said the Ramblers in response to the Kettering tragedy. They added: ‘what is called for is a revolution in attitudes.’ 36 years on, tinkering with speed-limits apart, perceptions remain blurred, and we haven’t got very far with attitudes. People need to be made to know that walkers have rights, and that there is no pecking-order.