Road Safety and the Institute of Road Safety Officers

A brief history

Casualties as a result of collisions on the roads are regarded as a modern phenomenon, as are the laws that regulate traffic, arising from the increasing popularity of vehicular traffic during the twentieth century. In fact, we can find evidence of what today would be traffic legislation many centuries earlier. Ancient Rome banned chariots from the city between the hours of sunset and sunrise - an early form of silent zone - while the Irish Brehon laws included regulations on the design and construction of chariots - early construction and use regulations - as did the Roman legal code. The Irish laws also classified roads into different categories, perhaps the first-ever application of such a system. Neither society, however, saw fit to appoint road safety officers; these would come along much later in history.

Horse-drawn transport caused many deaths and injuries over the centuries but it was the introduction of the internal combustion engine that led to such casualties achieving almost epidemic proportions. Reaction to the introduction of the motor car varied from country to country. In Great Britain it was seen as a threat to the established order, as had been the steam-driven vehicles that preceded it, and restrictive legislation was enacted. The most famous such piece of legislation was that of 1865 which became known as the Red Flag Act. This superseded the Locomotive Act of 1861 and required mechanically-propelled vehicles to give priority to horses or horse-drawn traffic; be fitted with two efficient and conspicuous lights, one at each side on the front, from an hour after sunset to an hour before sunrise; have at least three people to ‘drive or conduct’ the vehicle, one of whom had to walk at least sixty yards in front of it carrying a red flag to warn horse riders or horse-drawn traffic of its approach. This person was also responsible for signalling the locomotive to stop and assist the horses in passing it. Use of whistles on locomotives was forbidden and speed limits were instituted - 4mph in rural areas and 2mph in a city, town or village. Locomotive owners had to display in a conspicuous fashion their name and address on the vehicle. The fine for breaking any provision of the act was £10.

In 1896 the Locomotives on Highways Act relaxed many of these restrictions, including the speed limit, but this was raised only to 14mph. Compulsory fitting of a bell or other audible warning system was introduced by this act.

The registration of motor vehicles with the compulsory display of number plates was introduced with the Motor-Car Act of 1903, bringing in a basic system of vehicle identification that lasted until 2001. Under this act, drivers had to be licensed by the local authority in whose area they lived, although a licence could be obtained by anyone over 17 years of age for a payment of five shillings (25p). Provisions specifying reckless, negligent and dangerous driving were introduced while the general speed limit was raised to 20mph, although local authorities could reduce this to 10mph in certain areas. This was the act that introduced officially road signs to indicate speed limits or to mark dangerous corners or other hazards.

The 1903 Gordon Bennett Trophy road race could not be held in Great Britain, although the United Kingdom was due to host it, as a result of concern over the deaths in earlier continental versions. The UK organisers, however, decided to run the event in Ireland and lobbied Irish opinion, including the Irish bishops. A special Act of Parliament was passed to allow road closures for the event and to give competitors a temporary exemption from the speed limits. One member of the House of Lords, Earl Spencer, commented that the debate on this piece of legislation was the first occasion on which all members of both houses had been in harmony on anything to do with Ireland. For the Gordon Bennett event the British entries were painted green, to mark the fact that the race was being held in Ireland, and the shade chosen became known as British racing green. The race is also significant since it laid down the basic rules on which modern Formula 1 racing is based.

In 1904 regulations on the roadworthiness of vehicles were laid down: cars had to be able to reverse; be fitted with two brakes and carry a red light to the rear and a white light to the front of the vehicle. Car engines had to be capable of being switched off to prevent noise when the vehicle was stationary.

Some vehicle owners were travelling with their cars beyond the boundaries of their own states which caused some problems that were resolved by the Motor Car (International Circulation) Act of 1909. That year also saw the Development and Road Funds Act passed to raise money to meet the additional wear and tear on the roads caused by motorists. Taxes were levied on petrol and on motor vehicles according to their horse-power rating and the money so raised was to be distributed to local authorities for road improvements or for the building and maintenance of new roads. This was subject to the approval of the Road Board, which was established by the act, which also introduced powers for the acquisition of land for road development.

Vehicle use was restricted to the better-off members of society at this stage but that began to change in the aftermath of the First World War. Massive production of military vehicles during the war led to the disposal at attractive prices of many of those vehicles which survived. That encouraged small businesses to buy lorries. Furthermore, many men had learned to drive, and to maintain, vehicles during their military service and all of this led to a huge increase in vehicular traffic in the post-war years. This was added to by the benefits of mass production, which reduced the costs of buying cars.

It was not long before the problem of deaths and injuries associated with the motor vehicle began to take on much greater proportions than hitherto. Significantly, it was at this time that RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, was born. Before the 1920s were out many UK police forces had established dedicated traffic branches with specially trained personnel in an effort to reduce the mounting toll of casualties. In some areas traffic police officers were known as ‘courtesy cops’ as part of their role was seen as teaching road users how best to behave on the roads to ensure their own safety and that of their fellow road users.

That the solution to the problem was many facetted was recognised when the approach to casualty prevention was identified as the ‘three Es’ of Enforcement, Engineering and Education. This encompassed police officers, car and road designers and builders and educationalists.

The problem continued, however, and was exacerbated in the early years of the Second World War because of the blackout. A ‘kerb drill’ for pedestrians was introduced and public information films were produced to enhance the educational message. The ‘three Es’ approach was continued after the war but the emphasis on education began to be increased. Some police forces decided that their efforts ought to be concentrated on enforcement and a number of local authorities took the innovative step of appointing personnel to take the educational message into the community: these were the first civilian road safety officers, although the title officer was not accepted initially by government.

Within a few years there were sufficient road safety officers for a national representative body to be formed. This was NARSO, the National Association of Road Safety Officers, formed in 1957 and which was the forerunner of the Institute. One of NARSO’s first achievements was to persuade the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, and RoSPA, that road safety staff should be called road safety officers.

In 1961 a London Area Group of NARSO was established and became the prototype of similar groups throughout the country. At national level NARSO continued to lobby government through a series of discussion papers in an effort to standardise road safety practice and staffing levels. The end result of this exercise was the 1967 Ministry document entitled Duty of Local Authorities to Promote Road Safety. This circular set down guidelines for highway authorities, including a duty to carry out road safety work, which entailed authorities employing trained staff and providing appropriate funding.

At the same time NARSO officers had been investigating the possibility of becoming a professional institute. The result of much hard work and research was the decision to incorporate NARSO as the Institute of Road Safety Officers; this took place in March 1971. Much credit is due to the NARSO team that was responsible for achieving incorporation and especially to the then Chairman, Don Marshall, and Secretary, Dorothy Pummell. It is a noteworthy coincidence that the old ‘kerb drill’ was replaced by the new, educationally based, Green Cross Code in the very same week that the Institute was born.

Incorporation made the Institute a professional body and it remains the only such body in Europe dedicated to promoting the efficiency, specialised knowledge and career progression of road safety officers. One of the Institute’s first tasks was to continue the work that NARSO had been doing in attempting to create professional qualification courses. In 1974 the Institute was successful in establishing a pilot scheme for a day-release course at Middlesex Polytechnic (now the University of Middlesex) leading to a Certificate in Road Safety Studies. This course was to last for two years with a possible extension to four years for a Diploma.

The pilot scheme was a success and the courses soon became an accepted qualification for RSOs throughout the United Kingdom. Middlesex Polytechnic was joined by Manchester College of Arts and Technology (now MANCAT) and, for a period, by the University of South Wales. As well as the day-release option a distance-learning course was introduced, thus making the qualification available throughout the United Kingdom.

Today the qualification course is provided by MANCAT as a BTEC (EdExcel) Diploma in Accident and Safety Management. The student who produces the best dissertation on this course is offered Fellowship of the Institute, as well as receiving an award to mark his/her achievement.

The newly-created IRSO had inherited By the Way, the journal/newsletter of NARSO but, in 1974, this gave way to InRoads, the Institute’s own professional journal, which continues today as a quarterly publication.

Since 1977 the Institute has also organised its own annual conferences. These are three-day residential conferences held in universities and geared towards improving the professionalism of RSOs and they attract respected speakers from government, academia and industry as well as from road safety related professions. The most recent conferences at Durham and Canterbury (University of Kent) included speakers from the Global Road Safety Partnership, the Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety (PACTS), the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) and Sussex University.

These conferences are organised, usually, by the Institute’s area groups around the UK, thus providing the opportunity for an occasional ‘local’ conference. The conference is also, usually, the occasion for the Institute’s annual general meeting. Area groups also provide other training opportunities for members, and others, in the form of half-day and one-day seminars, workshops and meetings.

Area groups also create an opportunity for the dynamic of professionalism to make a difference at many levels on the well-established principle that collective energy is more effective than a number of individual energies being expended separately. The work of one small group in Northern Ireland illustrates just what can be achieved. Visitors to Northern Ireland cannot fail to notice that school buses in the province carry a standard colour scheme of yellow and white. This was the result of the work of the Northern Ireland Area Group in the early-1970s when they persuaded the then eight LEAs in the province to adopt this colour scheme on the grounds of safety. They used evidence from the T&RRL (as it then was) to support their argument. That same group also proposed the adoption of an Austrian schools’ initiative - a road safety educational calendar - in Northern Ireland. This proposal was accepted in 1972 and the calendar, based on the school year with a lesson for each week of the year, lesson plans and notes - all curriculum linked - is now a well-established part of the educational culture of primary schools in the province with 10,000 calendars issued annually, one for every primary and nursery classroom in the five education board areas.

The Institute continues to work on behalf of its members and liaises with government and other professional bodies to that end. It has used its influence to save road safety officer posts from being suppressed by local authorities and it is working hard to create links with the media that will help to further the promotion of the road safety message. A special message to all elected representatives in the House of Commons, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies, Tynwald on the Isle of Man and the States of Jersey has been drawn up for early distribution. A copy will appear on this site soon.