Think roads are dangerous? Sometimes we aren’t even safe on pavements

Some pedestrians. Image: Getty.

Our pavements are supposed to be a safe haven from motor traffic, aren’t they? Well, yes – except when they aren’t. 

New analysis of 15 years of road collision data in England, Scotland and Wales, revealed that 548 pedestrians have died in collisions on pavements or verges – roughly 40 a year – between 2005 and 2018. 

Most were killed by drivers who lost control of their vehicles through dangerous driving, momentary inattention, inexperience, or a medical episode, all with devastating consequences. Six of those – around 1 per cent – were killed in collision with cycles. 

The research is part of Project Pedestrian, a year-long journalistic investigation into pedestrian safety I launched with the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy in January. Through it we have uncovered examples of some of the most dangerous driving on Britain’s roads over the past 15 years.

Our analysis of historic data, based on a road traffic collision form used by police, found most fatal collisions on footways were apparently avoidable - most took place in fine weather, on well-lit streets, with no hazards on the road. In police parlance sometimes drivers simply “run out of talent”, driving above their ability, or above the speed limit, say. Most fatal footway collisions were beside urban roads, but some were on the pavements or verges of rural roads.

While walking is safe, and its upsides, from physical and mental health boosts to social benefits, far outweigh any risks, this research raises questions around how we tackle dangerous driving. Broadly, road casualty numbers have remained broadly unchanged since 2012, and although it rarely makes the headlines, pedestrians represent 23 per cent of deaths and serious injuries on our roads. As we all use pavements for at least part of most journeys, this affects us all. 

Some cases, identified via historical news reports, are more shocking than others – not least how the UK’s legal system deals with killer drivers. 

In 2017 Richard Frost embarked on an 18-hour drug-taking binge before a prolonged bout of dangerous driving in Cambridgeshire, travelling at up to 117mph, using laybys and hard shoulders to undertake, as well as overtaking into oncoming traffic. Mr Frost hit 19-year-old Thomas Fletcher and Thomas Northam, 22, from behind on a verge on the opposite side of the road, killing them both. Mr Frost drove another 50m along the verge, before abandoning the car in a field and fleeing with £72,000 of stolen money in a briefcase. Police found him that night asleep at his mother’s home. Although police described it as the worst driving they have seen, or will probably ever see, Mr Frost will likely drive again, receiving a ban of just 11 years and 7 months, as well as a prison sentence of 12 years and one month. 

The oldest and youngest in society are disproportionately killed by drivers on pavements, with 28.1 per cent of pedestrian deaths of under-fives occurring on pavements. In 2016 a van driver ushered four-year-old Esme Weir and her pregnant mum across the road in Liverpool before mounting the pavement to park, killing Esme. The driver said he didn’t see Esme, and was cleared of any wrongdoing

By far the highest number of pedestrian fatalities, 104, were among those over age 75. Older people are potentially less able to get out of the way of out of control drivers, and are less likely to survive being hit. Young people were next highest fatality group, with 77 16-25 year-olds killed on pavements. The age groups 46-55 and 56-65 were 150 of the pavement fatalities. 

Donald Sharpe was 89 when 24-year-old Sian Phelps reversed her Land Rover Discovery Sport out of her drive across the pavement, hitting and then reversing over him, only stopping when she drove forward 10 metres and saw other motorists gesticulating at her and sounding a horn. She had checked her mirrors and looked both ways but didn’t see Sharpe, she says. Mr Sharpe, a well-loved man known for helping others, died six days later in hospital. Sian Phelps was cleared by a jury of causing death by dangerous driving.

Young drivers aged under 35 were overrepresented in collisions. Men are far more likely to be killed as pedestrians on our roads than women – in 15 years 3,902 male pedestrians were killed, compared with 1,943 females – but pavement fatalities were split evenly between genders, with 273 males and 275 females killed in 15 years.

What is the solution?

Many road safety experts see more and longer driving bans, rather than longer prison sentences, as the best deterrent, even for lower-level driving offences – sending a message that driving is a licensed activity, instead of a right. That isn’t happening, however.  

Research by RoadPeace, the national charity for road crash victims, found driving bans dropped 54 per cent since 2008, with 70 per cent of disqualifications for drink or drug driving; drink driving comes with a mandatory ban, though this doesn’t always happen. Of 559,000 driving convictions in court in 2018, just five lifetime driving bans were given, and only 35 disqualifications of more than ten years.

“Driving bans are a punishment that truly fit the crime,” says RoadPeace’s Victoria Lebrec. “Families who are bereaved cannot understand how the person who killed their loved one is allowed back on the road in such a short time.”

The charity believes the decline is because either magistrates are reluctant to disqualify drivers, or because of a drop in prosecutions due to policing cuts. As excessive speed is the main factor in around half of road crashes, bans for speeding drivers could arguably have the greatest impact on road safety. But again, this is not happening. RoadPeace found that, in 2007, one in 18 speeding motorists was taken to court; in 2018 the chances of a speeding driver seeing court halved, to just one in 40. 

Chris Grayling, then justice secretary, announced a review of sentencing guidelines for drivers who kill, in 2013. In 2016, with Grayling as transport secretary, the government released a consultation into road traffic offences but, despite the 9,000 responses it received, little happened, beyond life sentences for the worst cases of fatally dangerous driving, and more license points and fines for using mobile phones at the wheel. There was also a pledge to look at driving disqualifications, which hasn’t happened yet.

The Sentencing Council last month announced it was looking to reduce the use of ‘hardship’ claims for drivers who tot up 12 or more penalty points: those who dodge a ban by claiming they would lose their job if they lost their license. For the families of thousands of pedestrians, and other road users, who have lost their lives over the past decade and a half, much more is needed. As Tanya Braun from walking charity Living Streets, puts it: “The current justice system is simply not an effective deterrent to dangerous behaviour. We need an urgent review of how the justice system deals with mistakes, carelessness, recklessness and deliberately dangerous behaviour by all road users.”

The research was carried out as part of Project Pedestrian, a year-long collaboration started in January 2020, between the Active Travel Academy myself, investigating pedestrian safety on the roads. Throughout the year research and analysis will reveal where and why pedestrians are at risk, and what some of the solutions are. The project aim is not to scare people off walking – but to raise awareness and seek a way to safer roads. 

Laura Laker is a freelance journalist specialising in cycling and urban transport.


Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.

Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.