Blackout blunder

Blaming the rise in road deaths on the blackout could be wrong. The notion that road accidents killed more people than the Luftwaffe in 1941 was challenged by research suggesting it was down to fewer traffic police and withdrawal of safety propaganda. Unlit streets and cars with hooded headlights (like those on this 1940 Ford Anglia) coincided with 9,169 fatalities on British roads in the second year of war.

Yet in work done for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA), historian A D Harvey pointed out that the casualty rate slowed in 1942 and 1943, when the black-out was still in force. His study claimed it was the result of more policing, and better safety publicity.

When records began in 1926, 4,886 were killed on British roads. It got worse in the 1930s, with over 7,000 deaths a year before the introduction of The Highway Code. Even this failed to stem the destruction and the Minister of Transport, Leslie Hore-Belisha, imposed the 30mph speed limit. He set up pedestrian crossings (Belisha Beacons), and brought in the driving test. Fatal casualties reached 7,343 in 1934, before his Road Traffic Acts checked the rise.

In 1938 there were still 6,648 fatal accidents, but after the street lights were switched off in September 1939, the toll rose to 8,272. The Birmingham Post blamed drivers' exasperation at the absence of road direction signs, painted over or taken down to confuse invaders. The Manchester Guardian's explanation was, ‘the psychological effect of living dangerously in war-time’.

Jaguar advertising in The Autocar of 5 March 1943 relied on promises of better times to come.
Among other explanations was the inexperience of service drivers, yet military vehicles did not show up as culprits. Most of the accidents involved private drivers still at the wheel despite the privations of petrol rationing. Pedestrians suffered worst in the early months, although by 1941 seem to have been keeping out of the way, or wearing light-coloured clothing as suggested by Air Raid Precations (ARP).

The Jaguar factory was given over to manufacture and servicing of Whitley twin-engined bombers.
The Home Office thought, 'War-dangers have caused road-dangers to be taken lightly,' and called a conference in 1941. It was attended by the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Home Security, eight chief constables, an assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, the War Office provost marshal, and representatives of the Admiralty and the Air Ministry. The Home Secretary and the chief constables decided that the biggest problem was diminished police supervision. Young policemen had been called up. Those left were busy enforcing black-out regulations and taking part in civil defence.

'The Police War Reserve has not the same interest as the regular police,' according to the chief constable of Manchester. There was a failure to prepare the reservists for traffic policing, and road safety publicity campaigns, developed in the 1930s were run down. The chief constable of Lancashire said, 'Instructions to school children, which had largely fallen off, were worth continuing'.

Mark V Bentley of 1939-1940 with headlamp mask. Wings and bumpers were painted white to beat the blackout. Policing became stricter and safety publicity revived. Deaths came down in 1942 to 6,926, and in 1943 to 5,796. The trend continued to a low point of 4,513 in 1948 then, with increased traffic, got worse again. In 1966 7,985 died. Improvements came slowly. By 2008 the figure was down to 2,538, in 2009 2,222 and 2010 1,857.

Hore-Belisha's Highway Code stemmed fatal the tide in 1934.