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Zebra Crossings

Volume 529: debated on Friday 9 July 1954

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Motion made, and Question proposed. "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Studholme.]

3.59 p.m.

Do zebra crossings save lives, or do they not? Are they a costly failure'? Should they be scrapped or reduced in number? Are they the least effective road safety device we have in this country today, only to be used if no better method is practicable? Those are some of the questions that I propose to discuss, and to which I hope the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport will provide a satisfactory answer.

During the next half hour in which this debate will take place 13 or 14 people will be killed or injured on the roads of Britain. That is a measure of the extent to which accidents—

It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Studholme.]

—are now occurring.

Pedestrian crossings were introduced about three years ago. Hopeful expectations were raised at the time, but these have, unfortunately, petered out. Possibly, the zebra crossings are not quite as dangerous as the old metal-studded crossings which they replaced, but they are perilous enough, and the figures of those killed and injured on them are deplorable. Some figures have been published.

The trouble is that zebra crossings in themselves were only a half-baked idea, or, rather, they could not work successfully unless quite a number of other things were done. With the passage of time, various additions and improvements and second thoughts have been applied to the problem. For example, there was at the beginning only permissive power to local authorities to establish "No waiting" zones. It has taken three years for the Ministry to decide that "No waiting" zones at crossings must be enforced. Now we have these studs 45 feet away on the approach side. In the last three years drivers have become a little slack about parking near these crossings, and when bad habits are formed they are not very easily overcome.

We are faced with a situation in which there is, unfortunately, a widespread ignorance about the significance to be attached to the present regulations. The outcome of all these shifts and changes of policy has been that now a policeman's authority in controlling traffic supersedes any right of way on an uncontrolled crossing and all crossings which are controlled for more than 20 hours a week must have the strips removed from them. This is regarded by some persons as a retrograde step, because there are many hours of the day and night when such crossings will have no policeman on duty, and the protection which they have formerly given, or which people thought that they gave, will exist no longer.

Pedestrian crossings were supposed to be zones in which the pedestrian was regarded, so to speak, as out of play. In theory, there should never be any casualties on a zebra crossing, but there are and the number is growing, as the figures which have been supplied to me by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary indicate, despite flashing beacons, studs and all the other paraphernalia involved. The strip crossings themselves replaced the studded ones, and they, in turn, fell into disuse, and in some cases are, indeed, worse death traps than the open road itself.

Somehow or other, whatever the reason might be, more and more people are being killed and injured on these zebra crossings. All that the Minister of Transport has said in reply is that there is clear evidence that so far from having failed, zebra crossings have helped considerably to keep road casualty figures down. I shall examine that statement in greater detail in a few moments. The Minister has, however, to some extent conceded the case of those who criticise zebra crossings because he decided that as from 1st July there should be fewer of them.

We have a safety device which possesses the peculiar character that the more of them there are, the more they are used by the public, the more deaths and serious injuries there are on them. I do not regard that as a very satisfactory safety device. Policemen are to be on duty at the various crossings—but we have too many police controlling traffic instead of crime—and some new regulations came into force on 1st July. This is a serious matter. It is literally a matter of life and death to see that when regulations are introduced, however unsatisfactory, they are enforced.

There have been widespread criticisms about the lack of liaison between the Ministry of Transport, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and local authorities regarding road safety propaganda, and new road regulations. I will quote one example. At the annual meeting in Glasgow of the Scottish Accident Prevention Council, Mr. Taylor, the Road Safety Organiser for Lanarkshire, expressed that view, which is shared, unfortunately, by a large number of people.

On 1st July, the day on which the new regulations came into force, there was indecision, confusion and chaos all over the country. As a result of lack of planning and co-ordination there are hundreds—maybe thousands—of crossings with no legal validity for reasons with which the Ministry is acquainted. According to the "Liverpool Daily Post," there are 22 controlled crossings in Liverpool and one of the busiest is in Lime Street.

Here the system was working very well, but it took two policewomen and two cadets to assist the point duty policemen in seeing that pedestrians crossed at the right time. A system which is working well should not require such reinforcements

In Liverpool, only a few controlled crossings have, so far, lost their stripes. Of the remaining 137 which are to remain as "zebras," 22 have been equipped with flashing lights but none with studs to mark the 15 yards non-parking areas. According to the city engineers' department, the work will not be completed for several weeks. In Birmingham, a similar unsatisfactory state of affairs prevails. According to the "Birmingham Mail," a representative of that paper failed to find any case in the centre of the city where the 45 ft. space was left clear.

In Kidderminster, the new regulations did not trouble the people at all, because in this respect they have shown a greater degree of civic intelligence than they did in the appointment of their Parliamentary representative. They will not have zebra crossings at any price. The chairman of the local highways committee is on record as having said that the town has no crossings and that the police were totally opposed to them. That is an interesting statement. In Coventry, the corporation is experimenting in the hope of producing improved beacons. The beacons on 60 crossings were not operating on 1st July, as a result of which the crossings had no legal status.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation
(Mr. Hugh Molson)

Which town is experimenting with beacons?

Apparently, in Coventry, an experiment is going on in the hope of producing improved beacons. In the meantime, at 60 crossings the beacons were not flashing. The shortage of materials, especially of electrical components, and lack of manpower were stated to be the reasons why the beacons were not illuminated.

In Walsall, motorists in the centre of the town were slow to conform to the 45-ft rule. Police officers were kept busy moving on motorists who had either not noticed the special set of lines before the crossings or who were unaware that the new regulations operated from 1st July. So we can go on, all over the country. To come a little nearer home, in Croydon and in Penge, pedestrian crossings also became a stepping ground to danger. The local councils have had difficulty in getting the equipment and, as a result, the crossings are not properly marked. Penge has had flashing beacons, but has been unable to get the studs. Croydon has 80 zebra crossings, only two of which are marked with beacons.

That is a further example of the situation which, I am sorry to say, is prevalent throughout the country. All these crossings with their attendant paraphernalia cost a lot of money. I have been able to discover the figures for the Metropolitan borough of Lambeth, the busiest part of which I have the honour to represent in this House. Since the zebra idea was introduced in 1951, Lambeth, in association with the Ministry of Transport, has spent no less a sum than £9,843 on the various alterations and changes in installations which have taken place in that time. The studs that were required to mark the 45-ft. zone cost the Lambeth Council no less than £1,120. That will give the House an idea of the vast sum of money that has been spent on zebra crossings.

Despite all this expenditure, despite all this application of effort on the part of the Ministry, the number of accidents is going up in the Metropolitan boroughs. The latest available figures far the period from 1st January to 31st May this year show 6,170 accidents compared with 5,958 in the same period last year.

Will the hon. and gallant Gentleman allow me to interrupt?

I am sorry. I cannot give way. I have the right of way at the moment on this subject. I am just about half way across and I cannot give way now.

When I asked the Minister for details of the casualties that have taken place on pedestrian crossings he provided the information that there were 3,103 pedestrian casualties on the crossings during 1953, including 89 killed and 3,014 injured. When I expressed some doubt about the value of the crossings, he said:
"People are entitled to feel safer on zebra crossings than anywhere else."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st March, 1954; Vol. 525, c. 2023.]
It is all very well to say that they are entitled, but an entitlement which is either not observed or enforced is worse than useless. Isaiah must have had the present Minister of Transport in mind when, in the course of forecasting all kinds of unpleasant things in the land of Idumea, including a great slaughter, he said:
"… he shall stretch out upon it the line of confusion …"
What a lot of lines, with consequent confusion, have been stretched out all over Britain by the Minister of Transport. It is no surprise that even the arguments he used in support of zebra crossings are also a little bit stretched.

In "Road Accidents 1952," a publication of the Ministry of Transport, the Minister is at pains to argue that 1952 showed a better accident rate than 1951. He said that that improvement was perhaps largely due to zebra crossings which led to an improvement in pedestrian discipline. In another part of the Report he said that the fall in the number of pedestrian casualties could be largely due to the effects of zebra crossings. There was no evidence supplied. It was just a bald generalisation.

At the Press conference which the Minister gave the other day just before the new regulations were introduced on 1st July, he repeated the statement that we are entitled to presume that the zebra crossings played a part in that reduction in pedestrian casualties. If the Minister is justified in his argument that the zebras reduced casualties in 1952, I am equally justified in arguing that the increase since 1952 shows that zebras have failed.

In fact, I am more justified in doing this than the Minister is. The latest available comparative figures prove that the number of pedestrians killed and seriously injured on zebra crossings is higher this year than it was last year. I got these figures as a result of correspondence with the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. I hope the Ministry will continue to publish these figures in future at regular intervals without having to be asked for them.

When we ask why the figures are going up we are told that more people are using the crossings. If more people use these safety devices for their protection and more of them are injured, it is surely time for the 'Ministry of Transport to take stock of the situation. The Minister was not satisfied with the position with regard to zebra crossings, and that was why he had to introduce new regulations on 1st July. A great man has been defined as a person who leaves posterity in confusion. By that test the Minister is a great man, with a double claim to greatness because, besides confusing posterity he has also confused millions of pedestrians and motorists who have the misfortune to be hic contemporaries.

In Dundee, there has been only one fatal road accident in three months, and yet Dundee has no zebra crossings. The Minister said that he was preparing casualty figures for selected areas with and without zebra crossings. A little later he said that good progress was being made in the collection of these statistics, but we are still without the data. When the Minister is asked what the principal reasons are for the increased figures, he does not produce any statistics to show that the situation in the non-zebra areas is better or worse, but says:
"While total accidents to pedestrians have been kept proportionately well below the growth in the number of vehicles since the zebras were introduced, there has inevitably been some increase in the number of accidents on the crossings themselves."—[OFFICIAL RETORT, 28th June. 1954; Vol. 529, c. 75.]
I take the strongest exception to "inevitably" it denotes a fatalistic acceptance of the present deplorable state of affairs. In any event, the Minister ought to know that the increase in the number of licensed vehicles on which he based his argument does not necessarily produce a corresponding increase in traffic.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary also announced to the House that pedestrians Must use their judgment as to when it is safe to cross a zebra crossing if they see a vehicle approaching. The only judgment in a matter of that kind will be that of the coroner, whose verdict will be that the person was accidently killed. Now, still dissatisfied with the present situation, the Minister promises legislation to impose some modest experiments in pedestrian control. We should like to know a little more about that because the fact that he made the announcement shows that the zebra policy has not worked out as well as it ought to have done.

I wish the Minister would publish the findings of the Road Research Laboratory on the relative risks of pedestrians on crossings and elsewhere. The findings are, unfortunately, in restricted documents which are not for publication, and so I cannot quote from them. In such documents the Minister will find various statements which substantiate what I am trying to argue.

I have communicated to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary various suggestions which I think ought to improve the position. The number of zebras should be cut down to the absolute minimum, if not completely abolished. There should be more traffic lights with or without pedestrian push buttons. All zebras should have a centre refuge where the road width permits, and where no centre refuge is possible there should be a white line extending for an appropriate distance each side of the zebra crossing. There should be penalties if vehicles overtake on the wrong side of that white line whether there is a pedestrian on the crossing or not.

All sorts of detailed suggestions have poured into the Ministry from members of the public, and they have come to me as well. There is no time for me to enumerate them, but I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will at least do something to allay the dissatisfaction and anxiety on the subject which prevails.

4.20 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation
(Mr. Hugh Molson)

The hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) has taken more than 20 minutes to make general charges against the effectiveness of zebra crossings, and I am left with only 10 minutes in which to try to deal with the many points which he has raised.

I will begin by making it plain that, wherever possible, we prefer that pedestrian crossings should be controlled either by a policeman or by lights. That is the only way in which one can have a reasonably high degree of security for pedestrians crossing the roads. I say "a reasonably high degree of security" advisedly, because even in those cases there are pedestrians who disregard the controls and attempt to cross. It is quite impossible for us to have enough policemen to exercise control everywhere.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman, in a remark which was quite inconsistent with the rest of his speech, said that too many policemen were at present engaged on traffic control. It would not be possible to have light controls everywhere without slowing down the traffic quite unreasonably.

The origin of pedestrian crossings goes back to the Act of 1934, when they were indicated by what were called—after my noble Friend Lord Hore-Belisha, a former Minister of Transport—Belisha beacons. Pedestrian crossings were one of the three great reforms introduced by that Act. The second was the test before a driving licence could be obtained, and the third was the 30 m.p.h. speed limit. As a result of that Measure there was a reduction of 10,000 in the number of casualties between 1934 and 1935; the 1934 figure of 239,000 has not since been reached. I am quite sure that public opinion is resolved that pedestrian crossings shall never be abolished.

The next step was taken by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes) when he was Minister of Transport. Since the hon. and gallant Gentleman has criticised the zebras, which were introduced three years ago, I take it that he is also condemning the zebra markings which were introduced by his right hon. Friend. Both my right hon. Friend and I have gone out of our way to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for introducing the zebra markings which, in our opinion, have been effective in bringing about a substantial reduction in pedestrian accidents.

My right hon. Friend has built on the foundations laid by his two predecessors. As a result of prolonged study by the Road Research Laboratory, and discussions with all those most likely to be well informed, he decided to make flashing beacons compulsory. Local authorities were warned of that decision two years ago, and the answer to the hon. and gallant Member's statement that on 1st July many of the zebra crossings were without studs and lights is that all local authorities had fair warning and could have obtained both the lighting and the studs if they had wished to do so. We decline to accept any responsibility for the lethargy of some local authorities who had fair warning of what was intended.

The second reform which my right hon. Friend has made is the introduction of new regulations intended to make zebra crossings safer than they were. The purpose of the flashing beacons is not to illuminate pedestrians crossing but to warn motorists who are not familiar with the district that they are approaching a pedestrian crossing. It is, therefore, in the interests of the pedestrian to provide that if that warning is not visible to the motorist when he is approaching a pedestrian crossing, that crossing should lose its sanctity. We have introduced that rule in the interests of pedestrians.

The other rule is that no vehicle may park or stop within 45 feet of the approach side of the zebra. This is in order that pedestrians may see the traffic that is coming and that traffic may see the pedestrian who is thinking of stepping off the pavement. A pedestrian has priority over traffic from the moment that he steps on to the carriageway. It is then the duty of the vehicle to let him pass over.

The reason why an uncontrolled crossing is not and cannot be as safe as a controlled crossing is that the pedestrian must exercise his common sense and judgment and the motorist must also exercise care. If any vehicle, especially a heavy lorry, is close to a zebra, it is quite impossible for the driver to avoid an accident if a pedestrian is foolish enough to step out at the very last minute in front of the vehicle. In such a case, the driver cannot be held to blame for the accident. I would add that even if the court held that the driver was to blame there would be very little consolation for the pedestrian if he was already dead.

Consideration by motor drivers and reasonable care and common sense by pedestrians are needed if zebra crossings are to be used with safety. It is for that reason that we in the Ministry of Transport have never regarded them as being particularly suitable either for old people or for children, and that is the reason why the present Government introduced the School Patrols Act last year, with the express purpose of providing wardens to ensure the safe crossing of children.

The right hon. and gallant Gentleman said that we had produced no figures to justify what we said about zebra crossings having already justified themselves. It is, unfortunately, probable that as long as the population of this country continues to increase and the number of motor vehicles to increase very much more rapidly there will be an increase in the number of road accidents. It is, however, a remarkable thing that after the introduction of zebra crossings there was a decline in the total casualties and a much larger decline in the pedestrian casualties.

Whereas, in 1951, the total number of casualties was 216,493, in 1952 after the zebra crossings had been introduced, it had fallen to 208,012. The number of pedestrian casualties fell from 59,861 to 54,503. Therefore, while there was a decline in the total number of road casualties of 4 per cent. there was a decline of nearly 9 per cent. in pedestrian casualties. In 1953, I regret to say, there was an increase of 5 per cent. over the total number of casualties in 1951, but in the case of pedestrians the number was still 2 per cent. below what it had been before the introduction of the zebra crossings.

I hope that in the time left me I have shown that zebra crossings have been the work of successive Ministers of Transport and that they are a valuable contribution to the guidance and control of traffic on the roads. The figures of accidents show that they have been effective in reducing pedestrian casualties even more than other kinds of casualties.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Nine Minutes past Four o'Clock.