One of the things that always made me dubious about Tony Blair’s pro-European credentials was his total failure to consider the issue of the clock change which leaves us out of kilter with most of Europe. As the nights get ever shorter as we approach the Winter solstice, the craziness of our habit of putting the clocks back in the autumn becomes ever more apparent.
This is particularly relevant to transport. Transport for London has done us a favour by commissioning a survey on the issue. (There is something deliciously mischievous about TfL which means it spends money on such things that appear not to be directly relevant to its work but which, in fact, raise important public issues) The survey shows that once the facts about road safety are put to people, a majority both in England and Scotland say that the clocks should no longer be altered.
In 1998, research by the Transport Research Laboratory found that leaving the clocks alone would prevent 450 people from being killed or injured on the roads. The logic is that while there would be more road deaths in the dark mornings, these would be more than compensated by saving lives in the evening when it was light. When the three year trial was ended in 1971, there was debate about the change in which the additional road deaths in the morning, rather than those avoided in the evening, were highlighted. And so we reverted back to the old system that had been introduced at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents issues a sad little annual press release about this issue. The latest one shows that in November and December 2004, respectively 76 and 78 pedestrians were killed on Britain’s roads, compared with 56 in October which is when the clocks change. While that is not conclusive proof of a causal relationship, it suggests a definite pattern. While in the mornings kids go straight to school and adults directly to work, in the evenings many more people are about, running errands, visiting friends, and shopping. And drivers are tired and more likely to have accidents. That is why leaving the clocks alone would save lives.
The effects on the wider economy would also be positive with more people willing to go out in the lighter evenings particularly in the early spring and late autumn and tourists would obviously welcome more light in the evening. But somehow, there has long been government inertia on this simple issue.
Labour has never expressed any interest in it, despite the fact that it would bring us into line with Europe and make travelling to the continent so much easier. So when the Lords debated this issue on October 26 on an amendment to the Road Safety Bill, it was not surprise that the government showed no signs of moving on the issue. While the minister, Lord Davies, accepted that there ‘would be a major contribution to road safety if this change were effected’, he then added rather darkly that ‘there other wider interests at stake reasons apart from road safety’ for opposing the change. But then he failed to set any of these reasons out!
Indeed, the only point to which opponents always resort is that it would be jolly dark in Stornoway until 10 20 rather than 9 20. But the kids have gone off to school by then anyway, so it would not make much difference. And why should the rights of Stornoway residents impose added risk on the rest of us?
Perhaps a reader could enlighten us on the reasons for opposition. One problem is that the issue of time is the responsibility of the Department for Trade and Industry. If it were the Culture, Media and Sport, or Transport, perhaps the government view would be different or, at least, we would be having a debate about it. Instead, there is silence on an issue that causes more deaths than terrorism in this country.