TRAFFIC NEWS

Road safety public information films from the 1960s are less heavy on the horror quota that terrified people into doing as they were told in the 70s; what one notices more than anything when watching monochrome pedestrians approach the edge of the kerb is the ironic emphasis on looking both ways for traffic when there actually isn’t any at all. Most of these shorts appear to have been shot on a Sunday morning judging by the number of cars passing by, and the absence of stationary vehicles lining the side of the pavement is a greater pointer to a different world than the sight of short pants or the black & white cinematography.

The gradual increase in car usage that characterised the end of wartime petrol rationing necessitated road safety being the most recurring topic of the early public information films; hand-in-hand with this growing awareness came improvements to official crossings for pedestrians to try to prevent them making their own way from one side of the road to the other and having to dodge traffic in the process. The first attempt at this was the Zebra crossing, which debuted in 1951, when there were two million registered cars on the roads. They were usually accompanied by Belisha beacons, which had been a regular street fixture since 1935, and the system reached its most notable worldwide exposure via the sleeve of ‘Abbey Road’.

The Highway Code specifies that motorists have to give way to pedestrians at a Zebra crossing, but some ignored the rule then as now; by just the first half of 1960, when registered car ownership had shot up to ten million, 533 pedestrians were either killed or injured at Zebra crossings, prompting a new solution by the Ministry of Transport. The ‘Panda crossing’ arrived in 1962 and was the first to have a pedestrian-level push-button system attached to the Belisha beacons, with instructions reading ‘Wait’ and then ‘Cross’; the design on the actual surface of the road was coloured the same as the Zebra crossings, but consisted of elongated triangles. The newcomer proved confusing for both pedestrians and motorists, and the unsatisfactory Panda crossing was phased out at the end of the 60s.

The successor to the Panda crossing, and maintaining the curious tradition of naming these street landmarks after animals, was the Pelican crossing. This first appeared in 1969 and whilst retaining the push-button aspect of the Panda, the Pelican introduced the familiar static red man and walking green man – though he always resembled a fairly non-binary individual, to be honest. In the 70s, this far more successful system was even promoted on a public information film by the cast of ‘Dad’s Army’ – a curious combination considering Captain Mainwaring and his platoon were mysteriously transplanted thirty years into the future without any of them seemingly noticing the fact.

Bar a few technological adjustments, when it was reborn as the ‘Puffin crossing’ in the 1990s, the Pelican remains the standard system of pedestrian crossing in British towns and cities. Tinkering with technology has also been responsible for a small handful of failed experiments, such as the brief use of a recorded voice by a celebrity that was a variation on the now-commonplace female voice announcing ‘Caution! Two-way traffic’ (presumably an aid to the visually impaired). I swear I’m not making this up, but around ten years ago Leeds City Council tried this out, and whose trusted vocal tones came over the speakers informing pedestrians the moment had arrived to cross the road? Erm…Jimmy Savile.

Throughout the 60s and 70s, children were the prime pedestrian demographic at which road safety programmes were aimed, as demonstrated with the proliferation of lollipop ladies at school crossings, as well as the Tufty Club, the Kerb Drill and the Green Cross Code – though the latter’s use of a be-quiffed old rocker clad in black (Alvin Stardust) or a muscleman in a cape and tights (Dave Prowse) probably wouldn’t be welcomed by kids in today’s considerably queasier climate.

Interestingly, the focus has now largely shifted to the other end of the scale; a study commissioned five years ago revealed that elderly pedestrians were struggling to keep up with the brisk walking pace of the green man. 76% of men and 85% of women of pensionable age were failing to adhere to the recommended international pace of 4ft per second; the findings of the 2012 report stated the average walking pace for over-65s is 3ft per second for a man and 2.6ft per second for a woman; it takes between four and seven seconds before the green man begins flashing (naughty boy), cutting it a bit fine for the plodding pensioner.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) are recommending the period for crossing be extended a little, perhaps taking the more plentiful numbers of OAPs into account these days. Zebra crossings present even more of a challenge in that motorists who fail to stop for pedestrians or exercise their impatience by beeping their horns only face a £100 fine and the loss of three licence penalty points; some countries impose a fine of around £2,000. The rules do change slightly if a motorist fails to stop at a Zebra that is a school crossing point, however, with a potential fine of £1,000.

NICE also expressed concern at the pavement furniture that can be a potential problem for either elderly or disabled pedestrians, such as the awful eyesore of the bin parade. Maybe they should have gone a little further and included the infuriatingly annoying charity chuggers that make a habit of invading one’s personal space on the street. They could easily be replaced by the return of the old-school charity boxes featuring admittedly creepy (to a child, anyway) actual-size fibreglass models of disabled children or injured animals that were a regular sight of our streets until the Spastics Society was reborn as Scope and decided they were old hat. And on that subject…

© The Editor

7 thoughts on “TRAFFIC NEWS

  1. Near where I live, on a busy A road, is a conventional Zebra crossing, complete with flashing Belisha beacons and zig-zag lining. I never see a pedestrian standing there for more than 5 seconds before the traffic stops – indeed, the traffic often stops just because an approaching pedestrian seems to be threatening to cross. Once that person has crossed, at whatever speed his/her abilities or sobriety dictates, the traffic starts to flow again. I know of no accidents at that crossing for the last 20+ years. A perfect example of vehicle/pedestrian harmony.
    A couple of hundred yards further along the same road is a Pelican crossing. Pedestrians usually approach this quite oblivious to the prevailing traffic conditions, their first act being to press the button regardless. They then need to wait between 20 and 30 seconds before the ‘green man’ approves their transit, the red lights then staying on to hold-up the traffic, usually for 30 extra seconds after the crossing operation has been successfully completed. Often the pedestrian, having first pressed the button, only then observes that the road is actually clear, so crosses immediately – 30 seconds later, the traffic is stopped by a legally-enforced red light for no reason whatsoever, the pedestrian having long gone on his/her oblivious way. Everybody hates that crossing, as it frustrates everyone and satisfies no-one.
    Which is the most efficient crossing?

    Neither motorists nor pedestrians ‘own’ the road, but it is a fact that motorists actually pay for it all (and more). My solution to this situation would be to redress the balance just a little by installing a 10p coin-meter, instead of the button, at all Pelican crossings – this would cause pedestrians to evaluate each time whether it was really necessary to stop the traffic, thus improving the efficiency of roads for all concerned.
    The only obvious downside of this approach could be the madding crowds which would amass on the surrounding pavements in both Yorkshire and Scotland, as their notoriously deep-pocketed, short-armed locals waited patiently for some profligate stranger to come along and make the necessary investment on their behalf. A small price to pay for roadway harmony.

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