Road safety expert warns of danger as councils turn off lights to save money (+ video)

Report calls for compulsory lighting and highlights danger to cyclists and pedestrians

by Simon_MacMichael   October 28, 2010  

Street light (photo: Martin Thomas)

A road safety expert has warned that lives of cyclists and pedestrians are being put at risk as councils seek to save money by turning off street lights, as reported on road.cc last month, following research commissioned by replacement windscreen company Autoglass.

The report, which says that street lighting should be made compulsory, is published as councils come to terms with how they will balance budgets in the face of cuts in funding of up to 30% following last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review, and ahead of the clocks going back this weekend.

Each year, the week after the clocks change sees a four-fold increase in the rate of accidents on Britain’s roads as drivers struggle to come to terms with the shift in daylight hours, says the report’s author Dr Nick Gkikas, formerly a member of the Vehicle Safety Research Team at Loughborough University and now a Human Factors Engineer with the consultancy Autonomics.

The report found that nearly two thirds (62%) of 3,000 motorists surveyed “regularly drive in the dark with the majority failing to adequately use their vehicle’s lights to see clearly,” that nearly four in five (78%) thought turning off essential street lights was “an appalling and dangerous idea” and almost one in three (30%) believed local authorities should carry out a consultation exercise before deciding whether or not turning the lights off.

Half of drivers (50%) questioned believed that turning lights off compromises pedestrian safety and four in ten (40%) that it would present an increased risk to cyclists, with the report adding that two in three (64%) of cyclists ride their bikes at night, but only a quarter (27%) wear hi-viz clothing.

The company says the report finds that “the high involvement rate of pedestrians and cyclists in accidents associated with limited lighting indicates that street lighting should be compulsory, particularly as there is a low frequency of vehicle-only accidents.”

The risk of pedestrians suffering an accident trebles when street lighting is switched off, says the report, commissioned as part of the company’s Blackout Britain campaign, and Autoglass adds that “switching off road lights seriously compromises road safety. Lack of illumination means drivers struggle to clearly see objects and hazards, placing cyclists and pedestrians at high risk,” as shown in the following video.

Autoglass says that Buckinghamshire, Leicestershire, and Essex County Councils have already turned their lights off with others expected to follow suit, with plans to switch street ligting off in places such as Swansea, Devon and some parts of Yorkshire. have already turned off street lights and similar schemes are already planned across Swansea, Devon and parts of Yorkshire.

Matthew Mycock, managing director of Autoglass highlighted concerns over the impact of budget cuts by local councils: “The Highways Agency has already admitted there could be an increase in accident rates as a result of turning off the road lighting. There are also fears that more roads will see black-outs as councils across the country try to save money,” he explained.

“We have commissioned this report as the road safety of motorists is paramount to us as one in ten accidents is caused by impaired vision. We are calling for local authorities to seriously consider the locations of the blackouts and the potential use of alternative measures such as dimming the lights, turning off every alternative light or switching to low energy lamps.

“As the clocks go back and the dark nights draw in, we’re advising motorists to take extra care on the roads by checking all car lights and headlamps making sure they are free from damage or cracks as well as clean. Also to check front and rear wiper blades for wear and splitting – a clean, smear free windscreen is essential to a clear view of the road ahead, especially at night.”

Dr Gkikas said: “While we’re not suggesting it is impossible to implement energy saving schemes without compromising road safety, our report clearly shows that more thought needs to be given to the detailed factors behind visibility-related accidents.

“At the moment, it all seems quite rushed and decision-makers haven’t realised what is at stake here,” he continued. “Of course we all want to do our bit for the environment and the economy, but as a single serious injury can cost the society millions of pounds in the long term, we need to develop methods for the appropriate specification of when and where to switch lights off.

“This means taking into account some of the interesting points this report highlights, such as a driver’s visibility of hazards and the likelihood of where they will face these risks most often.”

Roadsafe director Adrian Walsh added: “Lights or no lights this is a timely reminder to all drivers that they need to take extra care in these wintery evenings when the roads are often slippery.

“Don’t wait until it’s fully dark to turn on your lights, use headlights even when there are street lights, especially in built up areas. Keep a good look out, see and be seen. Pedestrians and cyclists too need to take extra care, be highly visible and never assume that you have been seen by drivers,” he added.
 

5 user comments

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I don't doubt these figures, but it is slightly amazing that turning street-lighting off has this much impact on safety. I suppose I'm used to trundling around lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree and covered in reflectors, which apparently puts me in a 27% minority. Also, as a pedestrian I can see cars coming when there aren't street lights because they're big, and almost invariably have headlights if it's dark. Are the additional casualties basically cyclists who don't ride with lights and pedestrians who don't look where they're going? And if so my sympathy is slightly limited...

posted by BigDummy [279 posts]
29th October 2010 - 12:24

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I wonder when people will begin considering the increased global warming/climate change, or those resulting directly from the generation of addition power (particularly if generated through burning of coal, which comes from mines, which aren't exactly fisher price ball pits) and the lives and peoples health that will be affected by these?

Quantifying all this might be somewhat difficult, but I don't think any report can claim to accurately represent the safety impact of lights being on or off without properly considering all aspects and issues resulting from the lights and the power needed to turn them on.

Clearly I'm being a little fanciful/unrealistic, but it does annoy me when people/bodies/organisations try to make bold recommendations seemingly without any consideration/acknowledgement of the potential impact of what they are asking for beyond the often tiny issue that they are reporting/campaigning on.

posted by joules1975 [64 posts]
29th October 2010 - 13:58

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All these drivers that are so concerned for the poor pedestrians, I'm shocked.

Just how did the 50% that "believed that turning lights off compromises pedestrian safety" come to this conclusion?

And how exactly is a consultation going to help? You either turn them off, and we adapt, or you don't. How does that decision require a researcher with a clipboard asking all and sundry? Thinking

Surely the main problem with the clocks changing is sleepy, inattentive drivers. Perhaps a mandatory electric shock in the mornings and again before leaving work would make them more alert. It would help if they turned their mobiles off while driving. Better still, get the police (remember them?) to enforce speed limits in urban areas so the dopey drivers have more time to see those elusive targets, er I mean people.

I'm also wondering why Autoglass commissioned this research (the quality of which is rather dubious, based on this report). I haven't worked out why they would be so concerned about this aspect of road safety.

Simon E's picture

posted by Simon E [1910 posts]
29th October 2010 - 21:48

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In what we regard as civilised countries, it goes without saying that the single most important responsibility of their governments and its various administrative organs are the safety and security of its citizens. As a member of the European Union this is further formalised in the UK by The Human Rights Act.

Unfortunately some sectors of elected officialdom are falling into the trap of blind obeisance to a paranoid obsession with global warming to the extent that in trying to be seen to be ‘doing something’ whether out of actual concern or to be seen as, vaingloriously, ‘being a leader’, some county and district council officials want to switch off road lighting for part of the night from around midnight to 5am. Whilst in many small rural locations this may be perfectly acceptable being low population and low traffic-volume areas, in the more densely populated conurbations this will inevitably lead to increases in crime in general, vehicle accidents and associated injuries and fatalities.

Studies by various eminent bodies and academics [1] clearly indicate a correlation between good road lighting and decreased levels of crime and vehicle accidents. Obviously, if existing road lighting is removed, even for a part of the night, the reverse will happen resulting in increased levels of these problems, the direst of which would be vehicle accident fatalities and injuries, rape and serious assault.

Essex County Council (ECC) is conducting experiments with part night road lighting in parts of the county. Whether intentionally gerrymandered or objectively selected the areas concerned are historically low crime and relatively low traffic areas which would tend to give results indicating few problems with the schemes. Some of the trial locales involve as few as 2 lamp posts, eg, Elmdon, which render any statistics ludicrously nonsensical! In some darkened areas burglaries and vandalism have increased exponentially compared with five years prior to the switch off when the roads were lit throughout the night. In what seems to be an alarmist frenzy of trying to prove that, in general, there have been no problems, ECC have ignored pleas by residents, who have experienced problems, to have the lights switched back on claiming that ‘overall’ crime has decreased! This scattergun view takes in the whole of Essex both where road lighting is kept on all night as well as the much smaller trial areas. This means that, irrespective of the increased crime in the blacked out locations, everything in grouped together and averaged thus giving a false picture of what happens in specific areas where lights are switched off.

In contrast to their responsibility of ensuring the safety and security of Essex residents and visitors, ECC are playing Russian Roulette with their lives instead. This is at variance with the authority’s moral obligations, the provisions of the Human Rights Act as well as the requirements both of their legal duty of care and also section 17 of The Crime and Disorder Act 1998. In the eyes of many this makes them criminals and, if challenged, perhaps in the eyes of the judiciary as well. The trials are extant and even though, at the time of writing this article, there have been no reports of rape, assault and vehicle accident fatalities attributed to the lights being off, this cannot be guaranteed for the future, even beyond the next night to when this article is read!

ECC’s projected CO2 savings, which is their ‘contribution’ to ‘saving the planet’, at around 7,000 tons per annum is mathematically virtually zero when compared with the world’s total output of some 26,000,000,000 tons of manmade CO2 or even the UK’s 560,000,000 tons! And at around an estimated 19p per month saving per Essex household in running and maintenance costs, or ¼p per person per day, is completely insignificant. It has, so far, cost many householders in the trial areas £100’s to install security lights to combat the blackout. It is likely to cost each householder £1000’s in increased home insurance premiums as the risks increase due to the lights being switched off.

In the scheme of things, the ECC’s trials and prospective Essex-wide switch off are potentially lethal and completely pointless from the aspect of reducing global warming and saving costs. Various initiatives by the national government are already reducing CO2 by hundreds of thousands of tons annually; over time this will reach into the hundreds of millions all without exposing the public to danger.

Conclusion:

ECC councillors’ knee-jerk reaction, now hardened by their realisation that no good will come of switching off road lights, has painted them into a corner. They must be made to realise that they are in their positions to serve the public, not to dictate to them. Serious consequences of their ill-thought actions will inevitably lead to charges of corporate and individual manslaughter, massive compensation payments – unlikely to be funded by insurers, and criminal charges.

[1] The various articles include, but are not limited to:

• Home Office Research Study 251: ‘Effects of improved street lighting on crime: A systematic review. By Prof. David P. Farrington and Assoc Prof. Brandon C. Welsh
• Institution of Lighting Engineers and others: ‘Invest to save – Sustainable street lighting’
• The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents: ‘Street Lighting and Road Safety’
• Dr. Kate Painter and Prof. David P Farrington, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge: ‘Street Lighting and Crime: Diffusion of benefits in the Stoke on Trent project’
• The Automobile Association – several articles, one being: ‘Street Lights – Councils Should Switch off their Lights Rather than Street Lights’ (dated 18/10/08)
• The Associate Parliamentary Lighting Group has also several studies in respect of the reduction of crime by the use of street lights. (Refer also to the Early day Motion tabled by Joan Walley MP on January 20 1999)

posted by Dunnthat [2 posts]
4th November 2010 - 8:26

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Very interesting DunnThat, and I don't think turning lights off in urban areas is necessarily a good thing, for many of the reasons that you point out.

However there are plenty of (even slightly) more rural roads that could easily have lights turned off for at least a portion of the night.

Indeed, in Wales there are I believe several authorities who are seriously considering it, if not already doing so. The lights being turned off are any that away from towns/villages or on some ByPass roads, and I believe they are off between midnight and something like 6am.

Granted, this trial (or proposed trial, I don't live in Wales any more so only get snippits of news/info) is in pretty rural areas, but I don't see why lights couldn't go out between midnight and 6am for semi-rural areas. e.g. any bit of road that's not in a town/village.

This should not present any issues, after all the majority of the more rural road network and a significant part of the motorway network is unlit anyway, so most people are used to the idea because its the norm for a lot of roads.

It would also more than likely reduce vehicle speeds, much like the trials in Holland where street furniture and signs were completely removed, and pavements were placed a street level. Drivers drove considerably slower and accidents were reduced because everyone took more care.

posted by joules1975 [64 posts]
4th November 2010 - 12:52

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