The M5 tragedy: the nation, and the road safety profession, reflects

15.06 | 7 November 2011 | | 2 comments


Road Safety GB wishes to convey its deepest sympathy to everyone involved and affected by the appalling tragedy that unfolded on the M5 on Friday evening – and its support and admiration for colleagues in the emergency services who had to deal with the aftermath.

There is no need for further news coverage of the event on this website – that has been, and continues to be, covered by the national media.

It is also far too early to speculate on the causes of the tragedy, and a police investigation is underway.   While many road safety organisations, including Road Safety GB, refrained from commenting, others voiced their views.

Alan Kennedy, chairman of Road Safety GB, said: “This is a rare but terrible tragedy that will affect everyone who reads about it to some degree.  However, the effects will be felt much, much deeper and wider, through the families, friends and colleagues of all who were involved. Events such as this remind us all how vulnerable we are, and how much risk is involved when driving.”

Although motorway crashes are a regular occurrence, incidents on this scale are very rare indeed. This is the worst incident for a generation and Andrew Howard, head of road safety at the AA, was quick to remind people that motorways are "our safest roads by a long, long way".

While acknowledging that there are fewer crashes on motorways per mile travelled than on other roads, Brake the road safety charity made the point that when they do happen they are more likely to lead to death because of the high speeds involved.

Ellen Booth, Brake senior campaigns officer, says: “It’s really important to stress that this kind of carnage is happening on a daily basis on our roads – five people are killed every day, but this often doesn’t make the headlines."

Referring to the Government’s decision to consider raising the speed limit on motorways from 70mph to 80mph, Ellen Booth said: “Government policy should not be doing anything to increase the number of man-made, unnatural deaths occurring.

“It’s relevant to today’s story (the M5 incident) because if you raise the motorway speed limit it sends out the message that it’s okay to go faster on our motorways."

The Association of British Drivers (ABD) published a press release describing road safety charities as “circling vultures over M5 dead”.

Brian Gregory, ABD chairman, said: "It is entirely predictable and reprehensible that anti-car/anti-driver groups would try to use the M5 disaster to bolster their demonstrably weak arguments against raising the motorway speed limit to 80mph.

“The proposed change to 80 mph is in order to bring the limit in line with the 85th percentile speed (the speed that 85% of drivers choose not to exceed). Accidents aren’t caused by a ‘number on a pole’ and the M5 disaster will be shown to be no exception."

In the wake of the tragedy, the IAM is calling on the Government to pilot an 80mph limit on a controlled and managed motorway to assess its practicality and safety, and road users’ reaction to it. The IAM also highlights the need for a full risk assessment of an increase in the speed limit, and believes strict enforcement is required to ensure greater compliance with the limit.

Simon Best, IAM CEO, says: “A fifth of motorway-users already travel at this increased speed, and more than half exceed 70mph when they can, suggesting that a properly controlled 80mph limit may not show huge increases in carbon or road casualties.

“Raising the motorway speed limit has been debated for many years, and the evidence is that the motoring public are ready for it. The transport secretary should now publish a consultation with firm proposals.”



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    M4 TRAGEDY by JP TREVOR (1216 words)

    Nobody’s opinion on the tragedy on the M5 will bring back any of those people who died but as a fire fighter who has responded to many horrific car accidents I’d like to share a few thoughts. The M5 disaster was beyond most people’s ability to take on board such horror. I kept looking at the photos in the newspapers thinking moments before their cars became petrol bombs they were on the way to somewhere with lives and families and loved ones. And then in seconds it all ended in a way that for those in burning cars is awful beyond words.
    As a fire fighter I had never seen anything on the scale of Friday nights fireball.
    I was born in London but I lived for a few years in northern Arizona where I fought fires on vast Indian reservation and also sent out to many serious car accidents.
    Back in Devon I’m often stunned at the dangerous quality of driving and it seems to be getting worse. So many times I’ve watched cars and lorries on the A303 and the M5 enter what I call a zone (or compound circumstances) of danger where one more thing could trigger a multiple vehicule accident. When I’m driving and I see a zone starting to build up I pull way back and slow way down and wait until the flow of traffic becomes more stable.
    It only takes one second for serious accident to happen and the signs on the roads that say Speed Kills and Keep your Distance are correct.
    If car dealers had billboards inside their showrooms with those signs and an enlarged photo of their shiny invincible looking cars in a major pile up sales would go plummet. But the cars are not dangerous. Drivers are.
    I’ve lost friends in car accidents and I’ve also asked friends to slow down and sometimes stop so I could get out and walk home in safety.
    What shocked me especially about last Friday’s tragedy were the witnesses who were describing the cars going thump thump into the fireball. I had this feeling the drivers had already collectively lost control and were powerless to do anything but smack into the cars in front and die.
    Last winter I was a passenger in a car on the A303 and a huge lorry suddenly span round about 300 yards away sending up a thirty foot wall of snow and ice. We drove slowly past the lorry that was now facing backwards. Through my open window I asked if the driver was OK and he just licked his lips with a look of how did that happen and I am glad to be alive. He was in mild shock. He was going too fast down an incline on a bend for the conditions. Fortunately the other vehicules had a safe amount of distance between themselves because of the snow and ice so the lorry did not cause a major pile up.
    The brutal truth is that there are accidents waiting to happen on most of our roads in the UK. And the driving I see amazes me there are not more accidents like the one last Friday. A typical scenario that I often see on the Devon roads is a couple of cars going near one hundred miles an hour in the fast lane with about two cars distance between them. Then someone is entering the freeway too slow and not decisively enough so the main flow of traffic doesn’t know what to do. Add to that the appallingly small amount of distance between the general flow of traffic and the predominant speed which is around seventy five mph and in a second it goes into the zone and I pull way back to stay alive.
    I’ve experimented with speeds to see how quickly I could come to a complete safe stop from 60 to 0. About three seconds. I was not there last Friday on the M5 but I would bet that most people were not only going faster than 60 but had nowhere near enough safe distance between themselves and the cars in front. About two hours before the horrific accident happened I was looking at the Exeter to Plymouth freeway from a nearby hill and I was astonished to see the way the traffic was so close to one another and going at a speed that if an animal ran out or a thick bank of smoke or fog came across the road it was a disaster waiting to happen. Cars are not on a magic carpet that somehow protects everybody regardless of speed or spacing. Cars are one and half ton lumps of metal filled with petrol with other lumps of petrol filled metal coming past you within feet – freeways being an exception – at an average combined speed of one hundred and thirty miles an hour.
    Like most people I still feel dazed about what happened on the M5 partly because it happened not far from where I live. But cars and smoke and fireworks don’t kill. Huge pile ups happen on clear sunny days and straight roads too.
    There are five things that can be dangerous: problem with the driver. Problem on the road itself. Problem with another driver. Excessive speed. Too close to other cars.
    If all of these things happen together then the traffic is already out of control.

    Speed and driving with not enough space between cars means that if something goes wrong on the road nobody has time to react safely. It’s so simple to drive safely on our mostly well surfaced roads that kill around one thousand eight hundred an fifty people a year and seriously injure around twenty three thousand.

    As for drunk (for me the phrase ‘drink driving’ makes it sound strangely acceptable) driving it’s no different from waving a loaded gun around a crowded room. I once found a young woman whose body was basically wrapped around the engine block so much the force of the impact. I smelt alcohol on the breath of the surviving driver. I will never forget that.

    I sometimes see drivers with a pet in their lap or the driver is on the phone or their head is turned away from the road talking to a passenger which means nobody is in control of the car or checking the mirrors. Lack of awareness can be fatal on busy roads.
    Our culture of faster, more, better, bigger is creeping onto the roads and that also is causing accidents because drivers are behaving as if they are on a conveyor belt of rush rush and often bully the other cars out of the way so they can go even faster.
    We are an over crowded island and our roads are crammed full of traffic. Until our government does something intelligent to reverse this it’s all the more vital to drive with extreme awareness and cut the speed and create lots and lots of space around you. I drive at around sixty to sixty five in the slow lane and manage usually to have tons of space behind and in front. But the majority of drivers are hell bent on shooting past.

    JP TREVOR © November 8, 2011.


    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    Amazing all this internal bickering.

    It would be so refreshing to hear one clear and intelligent voice out there who understands what really happened last Friday on the M5. It had nothing to do with posted speed limits.


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