George Orwell on Traffic Safety

'Keep Death off the Road' campaign poster designed by William Little and issued by the Ministry of Transport, Great Britain, 1946.

William Little, ‘Keep Death off the Road’ poster issued by the Ministry of Transport, Great Britain, 1946.

Eric Arthur Blair (1903–1950), who used the pen name George Orwell, is one of the greatest English prose stylists and social justice critics of the 20th century. He is also an unsung hero of traffic safety advocacy.

After being declared unfit for passionately-desired military service during the Second World War, Orwell ultimately obtained war work with the BBC in 1941, supervising cultural broadcasts to India to counter Nazi propaganda.

Realizing that this well-meaning campaign was having little effect, he resigned in November 1943 to take up work as literary editor with the left-wing weekly Tribune. For the next three and a half years he would write a series of free-ranging columns under the title As I Please.

The 8 November 1946 column included reflections on a new propaganda effort—Britain’s Keep Death off the Roads campaign—that was, like the India broadcasts, of very questionable value. Orwell’s trenchant critique, which remains as relevant as the day he wrote it, is hereby quoted in full.

One interesting example of our unwillingness to face facts and our consequent readiness to make gestures which are known in advance to be useless, is the present campaign to Keep Death off the Roads.

The newspapers have just announced that road deaths for September dropped by nearly eighty as compared with the previous September. This is very well so far as it goes, but the improvement will probably not be kept up—at any rate, it will not be progressive—and meanwhile everyone knows that you can’t solve the problem while our traffic system remains what it is. Accidents happen because on narrow, inadequate roads, full of blind corners and surrounded by dwelling houses, vehicles and pedestrians are moving in all directions at all speeds from three miles an hour to sixty or seventy. If you really want to keep death off the roads, you would have to replan the whole road system in such a way as to make collisions impossible. Think out what this means (it would involve, for example, pulling down and rebuilding the whole of London), and you can see that it is quite beyond the power of any nation at this moment. Short of that you can only take palliative measures, which ultimately boil down to making people more careful.

But the only palliative measure that would make a real difference is a drastic reduction in speed. Cut down the speed limit to twelve miles an hour in all built-up areas, and you would cut out the vast majority of accidents. But this, everyone will assure you, is ‘impossible’. Why is it impossible? Well, it would be unbearably irksome. It would mean that every road journey took twice or three times as long as it takes at present. Besides, you could never get people to observe such a speed limit. What driver is going to crawl along at twelve miles an hour when he knows that his engine would do fifty? It is not even easy to keep a modern car down to twelve miles an hour and remain in high gear—and so on and so forth, all adding up to the statement that slow travel is of its nature intolerable.

In other words we value speed more highly than we value human life. Then why not say so, instead of every few years having one of these hypocritical campaigns (at present it is ‘Keep Death off the Roads’—a few years back it was ‘Learn the Kerb Step’), in the full knowledge that while our roads remain as they are, and present speeds are kept up, the slaughter must continue?

As noted in a recent study by Keith Laybourn and David Taylor, the Keep Death off the Roads campaign would continue in full force for another 25 years, and would be superseded by similar defensive driving, walking and cycling campaigns that continue to the present day.

How many thousands of lives might have been saved if the state had taken full responsibility for traffic safety, investing in failsafe road systems and slower speeds, rather than in propaganda campaigns that slough the onus onto motorists and vulnerable road users?

It is time we all took Orwell’s advice to heart.


† Keith Laybourn and David Taylor, The Battle for the Roads of Britain: Police, Motorists and the Law, c.1890s to 1970s (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) pp. 168-170.

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