Once upon a time, not so very long ago,if you lived beside a British trunk road your life would be a nightmare of congestion, pollution and constant danger. As the years passed, the nightmare spread; first to ‘A’ class roads, then ‘B’ roads (remember when you could cycle on those sweeping rural highways?), and finally to unclassified roads in all but the most remote corners of these islands.
Today, almost every stretch of tarmac that isn’t protected by cameras, chicanes and speed bumps of various kinds has become a lethal rat run.West Park, Castle Cary is a good example – a cul-de-sac for God’s sake, but somehow traffic manages to thunder up the road at 30mph before screeching into one of the rare parking spaces. If they’re all taken, the vehicle simply double parks.
The problem is that we walk and cycle along our road, our pets do whatever it is that pets do along it, and our children play, and learn to ride bicycles here too. If children cannot safely learn to ride on a suburban cul-de-sac, where can they learn? And if we give in and accept that all roads are now too dangerous, is there really any point in them learning to ride at all?
…visual clues indicate… that this road space… is where people live, walk, talk and play…
Our road and the houses along it were once owned by the local authority, until such social housing was swept away by Mrs T’s home ownership revolution.The handful of houses remaining in local authority hands were transferred to a housing trust, which also took control of the car park, while the rest of the road remained with the authority.
We asked the trust if speed humps or warning signs could be put in, and although generally sympathetic, it said this was really a local authority problem, suggesting we petition the Highways Department at the local district council.The reply, a full month later, is perhaps indicative of the thinking prevalent in those authorities where the 1960s car revolution is still very much underway. Naturally, the traffic engineer shared our concerns, but was at pains to point out that:‘…children should not be playing in the road. It is a dangerous practice and should be discouraged.’ Remember, we are talking about a short cul-de-sac ending in a car park used primarily by residents.The highways man continues:
‘There are warning signs that we can erect, but the guidelines we have to follow clearly state that they should only be used to warn drivers of the presence of schools or playgrounds and the likelihood of encountering children on the road ahead.This does not apply as far as West Park is concerned… if we were to erect a sign and there was an accident, it could well put the Highway Authority in a vulnerable position…’
Not to put too fine a point on it, this is utter nonsense. According to the Department for Transport’s ‘Road Safety Good Practice Guide’, urban residential roads account for nearly 40% of all crashes (‘accidents’, according to DfT) and a high proportion of the casualties are children.The answer, according to recommendation 4.67, is that: ‘On residential access roads drivers need to be given visual cues that indicate strongly that this road space is part of the environment where people live, walk, talk and play.’
Traffic calming measures can be quite problematical. Speed humps are complex to install, the emergency services may choose to object (less likely on a cul- de-sac, of course), and to be safe and fully effective, they must be well lit and signed. Surely the answer is a warning sign, indicating that children might be playing? Something that children have always done and always will do, on quiet cul-de-sacs?
In practice, there’s nothing to stop you buying a road sign and erecting it on private land, but there is very little precedent for members of the public purchasing DfT-approved signs and erecting them in a public place. In our case, the sign would need to be fixed to a local authority pole, on the boundary between the road owned and managed by the local authority, and the car park owned and managed by the housing association.
…anyone responsible for a hazard is entitled to warn road users about it…
Local authorities have wide powers to remove unauthorised advertising signs, and equally wide powers to put up their own road signs, provided they are produced to exacting standards laid down by the Department for Transport in the guidance notes ‘Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions’.Where motorists are likely to encounter children, the appropriate sign is one that will be recognised by all road users – these are commonly found on the approaches to schools and playgrounds, but not, as our local authority claims, exclusively in these places.The particular hazard is usually indicated beneath the sign, and there are several options available, most appropriately in our case, the all encompassing:‘Caution Children’.
Anarchy in the UK?
If members of the public started putting up ‘obligatory’ road signs wherever they wished, traffic management would deteriorate into a state of anarchy, but the rules regulating triangular warning signs are rather different. If your car breaks down, you’re entitled to display a warning triangle, and in practice, anyone responsible for a hazard is entitled – even encouraged – to warn road users with appropriate signing.We had informed our local authority of a hazard (namely Alexander and co) and the authority had shown itself unwilling to help, so we decided to go it alone.
Several companies manufacture road signs, either to customer specifications for private roads, or to DfT specification for highway use.We chose to buy from HM Prison Coldingley, near Woking in Surrey. Coldingley is one of the key manufacturers of DfT- approved road signs, and can supply anything to order, profits helping to run the prison and giving a small income to prisoners.These things aren’t cheap, but they’re well made and obviously designed to survive in all weathers for many years. Our sign, in the smallest standard size (575mm x 870mm, including the warning plate) cost £105, complete with fitting kit and delivery.
One thing we weren’t expecting was the goodwill of friends and neighbours telling us just how much they appreciated the sign, and it does look businesslike. Does it work? All the indications are that it works very well indeed. In the short-term at least, traffic speeds are reduced, and cars are approaching with a new awareness that – as the DfT puts it – they are entering road space where people live, walk, talk and play. Motorists are not demons, they’re ordinary folk, but a lack of guidance from above had allowed our tiny road to become a race-track by default.With an appropriate message, drivers have once again started to drive in an appropriate manner. It really is that simple.
Home Zones are a successful feature of the road scene in The Netherlands, and a few pilot schemes have been established in the UK. Home Zones are usually established in urban residential areas, using street furniture, vegetation and other features to break up the street, and make motorised road users feel less comfortable, reducing the speed and volume of traffic. In rural areas, roads may similarly be designated as Quiet Lanes, the aim being to encourage pedestrians, cyclists, horse riders and wildlife to return. As our experience shows, not all highways departments and traffic engineers are enthusiastic, but under the Transport Act 2000, they certainly have the power to designate any road that meets DfT criteria as either a Quiet Lane or a Home Zone. Broadly speaking, a rural road is considered suitable if it carries less than 1,000 vehicles per day, and a residential road if it carries less than 100 cars ‘in the afternoon peak hour, with little or no through traffic’. Get counting and good luck! You have nothing to lose and everything to gain!
Further reading: The DfT website includes a great deal of information on road safety, road signs and Home Zones. The l can supply books, leaflets, videos and advice on all aspects of Home Zones and other street-calming initiatives: www.ncb.org.uk, Play England. HM Prison Coldingley tel 01483 804300 fax 01483 804427