Brake’s International Speed Congress 2012

17 May 2012, Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMECHE), London
Speech by Julie Townsend, deputy chief executive, Brake

Good morning. I'd like to extend a warm welcome on behalf of Brake to our biennial international congress on speed.

Speed is, arguably, the most fundamental of the issues we grapple with in the road safety sector.

It is, as we all know, a factor in all casualties on roads, and something that has a profound effect on all road users' safety, on communities, and the way we live our lives. If we effectively reduce and manage traffic speed, we can deliver far-reaching benefits for society, to do with health and active lifestyles, child and family well being, the environment, even community cohesion.

And yet speed remains, for many of us, the most controversial issue we deal with. Driving fast is unfortunately synonymous for many with freedom and excitement. It continues to be glorified through many media outlets in a way that suggests driving fast is a right, a pleasure we should be allowed to indulge if we wish, like a chocolate bar or a hot bath. Perhaps most damaging is the myth that everyone likes and wants to drive fast, that this is the norm, and any impingement in this is meddling or nannying.

No other form of criminal and dangerous behaviour – something that causes suffering and harm to families and communities – is publically defended in this way.

And this of course is the big challenge for us, which we hope this conference will help you tackle. To demonstrate that the myths that have been built up around speed are just that. To chip away at the defensiveness that surrounds driving fast. To shift attitudes and culture.

And NGOs like Brake can play a critical role in this, by supporting and working with road safety professionals, by encouraging community engagement, by putting pressure on government, and by continually promoting and reinforcing road safety messages nationally and regionally.

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Brake has campaigned vociferously on speed since our inception 18 years ago, through media activity, events, resources, and lobbying.

What we want to achieve hasn't changed a great deal – lower traffic speeds across all road types, but particularly 20mph or below in communities, through lower limits, improved compliance, and better driver awareness. But the way we deliver our messages has shifted. Over the years, thinking around how to bring about behaviour change has developed, and so has our approach.

In particular, we have moved away from simply warning of the consequences of driving too fast, to, more and more, promoting the positive benefits of slowing down – pointing out the relationship between reduced speed and sustainable travel, healthy lifestyles, and the environment.

We have also moved away from drawing attention to the fact that most drivers speed and drive too fast. We instead now focus on the widespread support and demand from families, schools, and society at large for safer streets and communities through slower speeds.

It's a subtle change but an important one: from saying no to going fast, to saying yes to slowing down. From telling drivers off for speeding, to thanking them for braking.

In doing this, we're responding to research that suggests people are more likely to behave a certain way if they believe it will have positive benefits for them – and that people find it easier to believe in bringing about positive outcomes for themselves, than suffering negative consequences. We are responding to evidence that people, by and large, like to conform, and are more likely to behave a certain way if they think others will approve.

In other words, we are taking advantage of the fact that people are both selfish and social creatures. People care about themselves, their families, and what people around them think. We can use this, we hope, to build a sense that driving fast is shameful and anti-social, that slowing down is the positive and compassionate thing to do. And perhaps we can use this to build our own myth, which we hope will become reality, that staying well within limits, and slowing down to protect people, is the social norm.

I want to stress, though, that we are at Brake not moving away entirely from communicating the terrible consequences of driving too fast, which remains important. As a charity that supports families who suffer the appalling aftermath of a death or injury on roads, we continue to engage these victims in our campaigns, allowing them to tell their stories if they wish, in the hope others won't have to go through the same awful circumstances. This continues to be a vital component in our campaigning, and we are indebted to the bereaved and injured families who work bravely alongside us. We are in no doubt these human stories get people's attention, and make the public and policy-makers sit up and listen.

Alongside this, we continue to use stark, simple facts about stopping distances and the physics of speed, and to draw on international research such as that being presented today, to demonstrate how and why slowing down makes such a difference.

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Communicating these messages on speed – the benefits of slowing down, the demand for safer communities, the stories of those who have suffered road crashes, and the simple facts on speed – is a critical role NGOs can play in the battle for speed reduction.

Brake is working through a variety of means to communicate these messages to key audiences, and to support and reinforce the work of those delivering road safety at grassroots level.

Firstly, we lobby national government, calling for better policy and more investment to manage and reduce speed. With the UK government's focus on localism, our current emphasis is on persuading the government to more effectively enable local authorities to implement widespread 20mph limits. We are appealing to the government to improve their guidance on setting local speed limits - something we hope to see progress on in coming months - and to release more funding for this.

Alongside engagement of national government, we continue to inform and empower communities who are campaigning for safer roads locally, particularly lower limits.

This includes deploying our Zak the Zebra mascot, to help these communities generate publicity and build support and momentum for their campaigns.

On the lobbying front, we are also at the moment, unfortunately, investing time in protesting the UK government's proposals to increase the speed limit on our motorways to 80mph. We have built a coalition of road safety and environmental groups opposed to the plans under the banner 'No to 80'. The campaign is being launched tomorrow through national media and social networking. This is one aspect of our campaigning where we are focusing on the negatives. The coalition is highlighting that 80mph limits will increase casualties, carbon emissions, and costs for the taxpayer and drivers – so employing social, environmental and economic arguments. I would urge any UK organisations here who would like to be part of the campaign to please let us know.

But at the same time as pushing for policy change, our work engaging communities in road safety and speed reduction, continues to develop.

Brake coordinates three major initiatives for pre-schools, schools, colleges and youth clubs:

Beep Beep! Day is an activity nurseries and pre-schools can run for under-8s. It's about teaching tots the road safety basics. But much more than this, it's about getting the school or playgroup engaged in road safety, and promoting road safety to parents and the wider community. Brake provides resources, and carries out publicity around the events, promoting the message that by slowing down, drivers can help local families walk and cycle safely.

Our Walking Bus event, coming up on 20th June, involves hundreds of thousands of primary school kids marching for road safety. Again, it's an opportunity for schools to teach children about safe walking, but more than this, it's about the schools saying to their local community: we care deeply about children's safety, and we need drivers to slow down to protect them. Through the publicity Brake does around the event, we are demonstrating support within communities for slower speeds.

And in a similar way, our Too Young to Die initiative is about young people speaking out to peers and others on the importance of safe driving, including slowing down. We ask young people to develop road safety campaigns as part of a competition, and we publicise the results. Again, we're demonstrating support within the community for slower speeds.

I want to stress that the involvement of road safety practitioners in these initiatives is vital, and I'd encourage you to find out about them on our website if you're not already involved. They provide an opportunity to engage schools and clubs as part of a wider national event, they can be tied-in with your year-round road safety programmes, and we offer free resources.

The same is true of our flagship event, Road Safety Week, which this year in the UK will focus on the theme of speed and protecting the vulnerable. Road Safety Week is now in its 16th year. Each year it involves thousands of partners, professionals, schools and community groups running local road safety activities, alongside a national and regional media campaign by Brake.

The way we coordinate Road Safety Week neatly reflects our wider role as an independent NGO campaigning on speed and other road safety issues. We develop the overarching theme and messages, we promote involvement to communities and professionals, we provide information, resources and advice on getting involved (through our website and email action packs). We make a big splash during the week itself by coordinating a comprehensive media campaign – using research and case studies, to generate coverage nationally, regionally and online.

But the essence of the event, the flesh on the bone, is community engagement, and that comes from you, and members of the public, running activities locally, demonstrating that safer roads are vitally important to ordinary people everywhere.

So it is very much a partnership project that works because of the commitment and engagement of professionals and volunteers across the UK, many of whom get involved year in year out.

It's a model we think is extremely effective, which I'm pleased to say we're starting to roll out internationally. Our first Road Safety Week New Zealand, coordinated by the newly-formed Brake NZ, was a big success last week. We are also developing our international Road Safety Week website to share information with practitioners worldwide. And we will be sharing our expertise and supporting the UN's next global Road Safety Week in May 2013.

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And in the UK, this year's Road Safety Week kicks off on 19th November. It's a perfect opportunity for UK practitioners to have a big push on speed awareness, or launch or promote new initiatives on this topic. So I'd encourage you all to register now to take part on the Road Safety Week website, and you'll be sent free electronic resources and information.

In line with our focus on promoting slowing down as a positive, socially-responsible, and all-round wonderful thing, our main theme this year is Slower Speeds = Happy People. We hope once again to be working with all of you across the sector, to make this event a pivotal point, not in our battle for speed reduction, but in our celebration of slower speeds.

Thank you, and enjoy the rest of the conference.