There are approximately 250,000 miles of road in the UK.
It is a vast network, so the challenge of identifying safety concerns on a specific bend in the road, at a particular junction, or in a certain village can be difficult.
Things like potholes, faded road markings, broken barriers, incorrect speed limits, and inappropriate signage can all go unnoticed and unfixed, flying under the radar and potentially causing collisions. At best, these things can be an inconvenience to both the driver and the community – leading to increased volumes of slow-moving traffic; at worst, they can be very dangerous.
Illustrating that point, potholes took nearly 2.7 million cars off the road in 2022, and the overall road condition (including signage and road markings – or lack of them) was a contributing factor in 12% of all UK road accidents.
As you might expect, National Highways and local authorities are keen to reduce those statistics and ensure a consistently high level of safety on all of our roads. To achieve that objective, many are consulting with local communities who can highlight hotspots of concern, allowing the authorities to allocate funds and focus efforts far more effectively than without assistance.
It is an important part of painting a picture of road safety with which to address key concerns, but to understand why, it’s necessary to highlight what the alternative might be.
What can go wrong if you don’t consult with the public?
In June 2023, a 71-year-old man from Knutsford made BBC News headlines when he took it upon himself to paint road markings on a stretch that had the potential to be quite dangerous.
Peter Sharratt described his “paint out to help out” efforts as something that urgently needed doing, undertaken at four in the morning with the help of two cans of spray paint, four traffic cones and a hi-vis jacket.
But Peter isn’t alone; local news websites are awash with vigilante efforts to install DIY signs and fill potholes, assisted by famous faces (and, fundamentally, hands) such as Rod Stewart and Arnold Schwarzenegger!
While there is no doubt that these well-intentioned community efforts aim to make roads safer, the opposite can sometimes be true. Peter Sharratt, for example, received a stiff rebuke from Cheshire East Council: “This was a dangerous action, which placed himself and other road users at risk.”
As well as the danger when carrying out the unsanctioned work, local authorities will have their own procedures and standards on how best to repair the road. A DIY job is unlikely to meet those standards, sometimes requiring work to rectify the well-intentioned efforts before it can be redone properly.
These amateur efforts are usually the result of community members who feel that the local authority is unable or unwilling to address granular road safety issues – those that affect a specific stretch, bend, or junction. It is the embodiment of frustration manifesting itself in direct action.
But, ultimately, the proper way – allowing local authorities to fix roads and maintain roads – is the best way.
Having identified what can happen when the public’s viewpoints aren’t considered, let’s look at the benefits reaped when they are.
The advantages of consulting with the public on road safety matters
Working in collaboration with members of the public can enhance the maintenance and management efforts of local authorities. It can do so in several ways:
Nobody understands the intricacies of navigating a tricky junction or enduring a substantial pothole better than someone who encounters them daily. These individuals possess first-hand experience and often hold potential solutions that go beyond what analysts can derive from maps or collision data alone.
Consider a perplexing roundabout, for instance. Without clear instructions on lane usage for each exit, there’s an increased risk of sudden lane changes and unavoidable collisions. Drivers who witness near-misses regularly know that introducing clear signage would greatly improve the experience for inexperienced drivers.
Drawing from the expertise and local knowledge of community members allows local authorities to gain a deeper understanding of the unique challenges and characteristics of the roads. These individuals have an intimate understanding of traffic patterns, peak hours, and accident-prone areas. By consulting with them, authorities can make more informed decisions on road safety measures, ensuring that interventions are targeted and tailored to address specific local concerns.
While National Highways spends an average of £192,000 maintaining each mile of the motorway, local authorities have a budget of just £6,000 for the same distance on secondary roads.
It is, therefore, vital that efforts are laser-focused. Building on the previously-mentioned familiarity, councils and authoritative bodies can pinpoint maintenance and improvements to a specific location based on the feedback that they receive. Roads that are used more regularly or pose a higher risk to property and life can be prioritised over those that don’t, reducing projects that could be deemed inefficient and informed by public awareness and concerns.
We all want to feel like our opinions matter, that they are being listened to.
That’s what community engagement is all about.
The concept plays a pivotal role in enhancing road safety efforts. When local authorities actively involve members of the public, they foster a sense of ownership and empowerment, creating a collaborative environment for improving road conditions, and allowing members of these communities to become stakeholders.
By genuinely valuing and implementing feedback from the public, local authorities demonstrate their commitment to delivering impactful initiatives. This approach cultivates a positive relationship between authorities and community members, leading to increased acceptance of work delays and a greater willingness to support ongoing projects.
When residents are engaged in road safety matters, they feel a collective responsibility to ensure the longevity of safety measures. Signs, road surfaces, barriers, or painted markings are all likely to remain in better condition throughout their lifespans than without public engagement. The community takes pride in their contribution, knowing that they have played a part in creating a safer road environment.
What is the best method of consulting with the public?
We live in a very digital age.
While that might be an obvious statement, it is one that can influence the way you gather information from the public and engage with them on matters of road safety.
Gone are the days of posting surveys through letterboxes and hosting physical town hall events at which you can rarely guarantee the number of attendees. In their places, social media platforms like Facebook and Next door provide a forum in which to gather thoughts, ideas and insights, whilst also inspiring engagement.
But there is no ignoring the fact that many members of these communities are not digital natives, and may not, in fact, have access to a computer, tablet or mobile device on which to view your communications.
For these people, it may still be necessary to host a physical meeting, also inviting people to join via video broadcasting software to boost accessibility.
Consulting with the public on road safety matters is an opportunity to draw upon local knowledge, foster a sense of collective responsibility, and promote the democratisation of management and maintenance. Missing the opportunity can cause members of the public to take matters into their own hands, whereas together we can make our roads and, consequently, our communities safer.