“Earlier this year, a boy hit me on the street near my house.”

Unwelcoming: an empty street at night. Image: Pixabay.

Earlier this year, a boy hit me on the street near my house.

He didn’t hit me hard. But he still hit me. He still hit me.

No man has ever hit me before.

About a month before this incident, a man tried to follow me home.

I was walking across a bridge that separates central Bristol from my neighbourhood, when he started running behind me and shouting to me. There was no one around. I kept walking across the bridge, towards the crossing which had just changed to a Red Man.

Please let there be no traffic, I kept whispering to myself. Please let there be no traffic.

If there was traffic, I’d have to stop, and he would catch me. If there was traffic, I wouldn’t be able to get away.

I got across the road and the traffic stopped him. Without thinking, I turned from my normal route home across the quiet churchyard and down a quiet street to walk down the busy road and through the brightly lit supermarket. It takes longer this way, but like women all around the world I told myself I’d be safer where the lights are brighter. I told myself this, even though a few weeks earlier a drunk man had shouted obscenities at me in the place I now reached out to as some kind of brightly coloured, muzack-ed sanctuary.

After the supermarket, I walked on the main road with its street lamps and its pubs and its neon shop fronts.

It was on that street where, a few weeks later, the boy hit me.

I could tell you all the things I told myself, the answers to the questions you get asked when a boy or a man hits you on the street. It wasn’t late. It was about 9.20pm. I wasn’t drunk. (He was. He was very, very drunk.) I was wearing… I can’t remember, probably jeans. My leather jacket.

I was walking home the safe way, the main street way, the street-lit way, and a group of drunk teenagers approached me, jeering, and the largest boy swung his arm and hit me across the face, the side of his hand knocking against my glasses.

I shouted at them. I was proud of myself for that.

The next day I had to go back down the street to the supermarket. A man bowled out of a pub doorway and crashed into me, swore at me for being in his way.

I burst into tears.


For weeks afterwards, I had a changed attitude towards my city. I approached walking home with a heightened sense of fear – a level of fear I’d perhaps naively not had before. When friends peeled off from the street on our way home from the pub, I faced the rest of the walk home with my heart pounding. For the first time, I carried my keys sticking out of my knuckles, Wolverine style. I was pathetically grateful when a friend lied – saying he fancied a stroll and walked home via my flat. I hung around the cab rank with groups of women friends, glad to have people to share a taxi home with.

I’m not alone with that fear, or with the decision to change my behaviour to manage my fear. Half of 42,000 European women responded to a survey saying they restricted their freedom of movement to avoid gender-based violence. Women everywhere have learned to develop a hard stare, to carry their keys in their fists, to pretend to talk on a silent phone.

In our desire to keep ourselves safe, women walk fewer steps than men, research shared in the Guardian last week suggested. Weighing up our risks of being on the street, we are more likely to catch buses or get taxis home over short distances. Fear not only changes our behaviour on the streets, it costs us money and harms our physical health.

It’s six months since a boy hit me on the street, and on Thursday I’m convening a panel called ‘What if women built cities?for Bristol’s Festival of Future Cities. How would we build cities, to make them safer places for women? To make them places where women aren’t forced into cabs, aren’t forced to tentatively ask for an escort home, don’t weigh up whether it’s too late to take the shortcut through the churchyard, don’t nervously eye the clock and think we should probably leave, now, before it’s too late?

After all, if we walk home on our own past a certain hour, and something happens to us, then we know the first question we’ll be asked is:  Why were you walking home on your own anyway?

There are practical things I can think of to build safer cities for women: more street lights, more public toilets with female attendants. Wider pavements, especially outside bars where groups of drinking men congregate with cigarettes. We could have more and better policing at taxi ranks, and the recent London Uber decision shows we need improved regulation of these services. There’s the need to build more social housing – women are the hidden face of our homelessness crisis, trapped behind B&B and hotel room doors.

But fundamentally, we need to build a different society.

In her book, Radical Feminism, my fellow panellist Dr Finn Mackay interviewed women about their experiences on ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches. Many responded to say how it felt like they were ‘trespassing’ when they marched – that the act of taking up public space felt revolutionary and transgressive. Their responses show how much women internalise and put up with the feeling that the streets aren’t for us.

When men choose to shout, harass, follow, even abuse us on the streets, they are asserting male entitlement and power. This is our space, their actions say. And you are not supposed to be here. If you are here, then you need to be ready for us to judge, mock, threaten, attack you. If you don’t want to be judged, mocked, threatened or attacked then go home. Get back in the domestic sphere, where you belong.

To build cities for women, we need first to build a society that respects women. We need to build a society where a woman can walk home at any time of the day or night, taking any route she chooses, without being made to feel afraid. We need a society where women aren’t quizzed about those choices, when the worst happens and men attack us.

We need a society where women see public space as for them, in the same way men do.

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. 

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Why is it acceptable to kill someone? On the mysterious history of Britain’s road death toll

A London speed camera, 2004. Image: Getty.

A decade ago I became fascinated by a graph. This one:

I had been tracking the underlining data for years. The figures were easy to remember. Every year it was 3,500, plus or minus a percentage point or two.

Yet when the 2008 data was released, it had fallen to 2,538. This was 1,000 less than the figure in 2003. I plotted the above graph, and as I said, I became fascinated.

Because this is a really important graph. This is a plot of the number of people killed on Britain’s roads each year.

In Great Britain, collectively, we used to kill nearly 3,500 people on our roads every year. Consistently or, dare I say it, boringly: 3,500 deaths a year, 10 a day. It was accepted, in a, “Well yes it’s bad, but what can you do about it” kind of way. There was no clamour for change. Newspapers weren’t running headlines about the deaths mounting up, as they do with knife crime.

Meanwhile a train crash would be front page news for a week. Take the train that derailed at Hatfield on 17 October 2000, a tragedy in which 4 people died. That led to huge media interest, massive upheaval on the railways, and, ultimately, as the re-nationalisation of Railtrack, whose failings had caused the crash. Yet more than twice as many people will have died on the roads that day. Nothing was written about those deaths. Nothing changed.

In 2000, four people died in train crashes, while 3,409 died on the roads.

Here are those figures again.

1997 – 3,599 people killed on our roads

1998 – 3,422

1999 – 3,423

2000 – 3,409

2001 – 3,450

2002 – 3,431

2003 – 3508

But, in 2004 the figure dropped below 3,400 for the first time, to 3,221. Then in 2005 to 3,201.

2006 – 3,172

2007 – 2,946

Below 3,000! This was change. Significant change: 500 lives a year were not being lost. If you use Britain’s roads, your life may have been one of them.

2008 – 2,538

2009 – 2,222

When the 2010 figures came out I was amazed by the headline figure: 1,857.

That’s still far too high, of course, but it was 1,701 lower than seven years earlier.

This was a major story that deserved a ton of coverage, which it failed to get. Having shown no concern for when we were killing 3,500 people, it wasn’t overly surprising that the fact we were now killing 1,700 fewer wasn’t celebrated.

At any rate, the graph had flat-lined for years, then, in half a dozen years, it halved. Why?

The lack of media coverage resulted in an absence of answers. One commentator, Christian Woolmar, observed that there was no clear answer to why this had happened. But he went on to point out that there had been a fall in the average road speed over this period.

My anticipation of the 2011 figures troubled me, because I expected them to go up. Obviously I didn’t want them to: I desperately want zero deaths on our roads. But something happened in 2010 that I was sure would lead to more fatalities and bring a halt to the falling trend.

I was right. In 2011 we killed 1,901.

Sometimes, being right is shit.

The news was better in 2012. The fatality rate was 1,754. So was the 2011 figure just a blip, due to some significant snowfalls that year? No: the trend was over.

The number of people killed on our roads has remained stuck in the 17 hundreds. 

2013 – 1,713

2014 – 1,775

2015 – 1,732

2016 – 1,792

2017 – 1,793

2018 – 1,782

We have returned to a flatline on the graph – and if anything, I’m more fascinated now than I was before. Road deaths flatlined at 3,500 for years, then fell sharply, then flatlined again at half the rate.

This can’t have happened by accident. I wished I could explain it. I wish we could repeat it. No: I wish the second flatline hadn’t happened, and the fall had continued. If the rate of fall had continued, we’d have reached zero deaths on the road by now. You’d be right to question whether this is possible – but if you can half the number in a few years, why can’t we eradicate them altogether? The railways are an example of what is possible. The last time a passenger died in a train crash on Britain’s railways was in 2007.

It was time to figure out the answers to two questions. Why did the death toll fall? And why did it stop falling?

The obvious reason for a reduction in deaths on the road is the improvement in car safety features. This could create a gradual fall in the death toll as new, safer cars replaced older ones. But I’m not sure it can explain a 40 per cent fall over a 4 year period.

There’s a way to check whether cars on the road became almost twice as safe between 2003 and 2010: you can compare the figures with the rest of the EU. Car safety features are international, and any new feature would have appeared around the same time across the continent.

So I found the EU figures for 2000 to 2017, indexed for 2000 and plotted the graph for multiple countries. It was a busy graph. For clarity the following graph only includes Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy along with a straight line drop for comparison.

The good news is that things are improving across Europe – but no country had quite the same trajectory as Britain. They all have a fall much closer to a straight line of the sort you’d expect a general improvement in car safety would produce.

One thing I did notice is that, from 2013, these five countries stop falling. The technology based solutions of recent years, such as automatic emergency braking, don’t appear to be saving lives as of yet.

So, yes, cars are safer – but that doesn’t seem to explain why British roads suddenly became 40 per cent safer between 2006 and 2010.


In 1999, the New Labour government announced that it was going to reduce deaths on our roads. The target was a 50 per cent reduction by 2010. As you now know, it succeeded. This was a major achievement for a government. The kind of thing you would bang on about all the time. “Deaths on our roads halved by Labour!” But the party wasn’t in government when the 2010 figures were released – and it’s hard to take credit for your achievements from the opposition benches.

That it was government policy is not a full explanation, and how this happened is a little opaque. From what I can gather there was a wide ranging approach. The fire and rescue service changed their practices: because they recognised that survival rates were directly dependent on how quickly people got to hospital, this became the priority. Disturbing a police crime scene was allowed if it saved a life. Accident black spots were located, highlighted and safety measures implemented. Throughout that period road safety campaigns focused on speed, with “Speed Kills” being the dominate message for that decade. The government also changed the laws on speed cameras.

RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has a lot to say about speeding and speed cameras. Its “Speed Camera Factsheet” states that, “Cameras are a very effective way of persuading drivers not to speed, and thereby reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured.” It reports that an independent review published by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2005 said that “cameras significantly reduce speeding and collisions, and cut deaths and serious injuries at camera sites”, adding that cameras sites were delivering 100 fewer deaths per year.

Cameras first appeared in 1991, and revenue from court fines and fixed penalties went to the Exchequer. However in 2000 a trial scheme saw local councils keep the fines to pay for the cost of speed and red-light cameras. The pilot was so successful that, in 2001, legislation enabled this to happen across the country. The cost of providing and operating cameras moved from the local authority to the law breaking motorist.

The golden age of the speed camera had begun.

There was a tweak to this legislation in 2007. Fines reverted back to the Exchequer’s piggy bank. The DfT switched to funding cameras through a road safety grant. The intention was to create a greater mix of road safety measures agreed between local authorities and the police.

The number of people killed on British roads in 2007: 2,946

The number of people killed on British roads in 2010: 1,857

So perhaps the creation of the Road Safety Grant had a significant impact.

The second question: why did the death toll stop falling?

In 2010 I was unaware of Labour’s target to halve deaths on the roads. But, the change in government was enough for me to predict that the fall was over.

When the Tory/Lib Dem government negotiated its way into power in May 2010, the press declared that it was the end of the horrible nanny state – a return to personal freedom, liberty and the rule of common sense.

The way that this was to play out in real practical terms was on our roads. The evil speed camera was in the firing line. The narrative was that these cameras were just there so councils could extract cash from the poor public. Completely ignored were the facts that the fines were only handed down to dangerous, law-breaking drivers, and that councils no longer got the cash from fines.

Soon after the election the coalition government said that “Labour's 13-year war on the motorist is over” and pledged to scrap public funding for speed cameras. The Road Safety Grant to local authorities was cut from £95m to £57m. This meant that the government was now receiving an estimated £40m more raised in fines than it was spending on road safety. The cut to the grant reduced the camera maintenance budget by 27 per cent. It removed all the funding for new cameras, speed humps and other safety measures.

And the golden age ended.

Councils across the country announced their change of policy. Oxfordshire County Council switched off its speed cameras on 1 August 2010. Money was saved; lives were lost.

Eight months later, on 1 April, Oxfordshire’s cameras snapped back into life when the council reversed its decision because deaths on the county’s roads had immediately increased.

Turning off speed cameras sent out the message that we were no longer taking speeding seriously. The road safety campaigns changed their focus. The message that Speed Kills fell away and was replaced by drink- and drug-driving messages. It’s easy to miss that these campaigns move from encompassing virtually every driver to targeting a minority. A switch from confronting a socially acceptable behaviour to re-enforcing something already unacceptable. The state is no longer challenging everyone to be safe – only the small minority of bad people.

Yet speed still kills. The World Health Organisation states that an increase in average speed of 1 km[h typically results in a 3 per cent higher risk of a crash involving injury, with a 4–5 per cent increase for crashes that result in fatalities.
The majority of safety measures installed before 2010 remain in place and are saving lives. But with the funding gone councils are no longer installing new measures and the death toll is no longer falling.

So you can make a strong case that the pattern of road deaths was the result of government policy.

Which begs the question of our government: why has it accepted that it’s OK to kill, or be killed, on our roads?