The Red Flag Act 1865-1897: What Can it Do For Us?

I am in favour of slowing the traffic in built-up areas of Scotland and I warmly welcome the bill proposed by Mark Ruskell to reduce default traffic speeds in our cities, towns and villages from 30mph to 20mph (Proposed Restricted Roads (20mph Limit) (Scotland) Bill). There are multiple reasons why I support such slower speeds including the environmental benefits of lower traffic noise and reduced vehicle emissions. The most important reason, however, is enhanced safety for the unprotected road user, the pedestrian and the cyclist. Should they be hit by a motor vehicle at 20mph their risk of being killed reduces to one fifth compared to being hit by a car at 30mph (1.5% vs 8% chance of death ROSPA). I thus find it strange that many react to my support for slower speeds with the almost instant retort “you’ll be advocating a man with a red flag in front of the car next”. By saying this, there is an attempt to discredit and ridicule the argument for slower speeds, reductio ad absurdum if you will. They imply that the notion of slowing traffic is so ludicrous that it trumps all the positives.

As an advocate for slower speeds, I have been wondering if we can take anything from this “red flag” brickbat. Why did the Victorians impose the requirement for a person with a red flag to precede motor vehicles? Let’s consider road use in those times. Roads were not only used by pedestrians, cyclists and equestrian traffic, but were places for children to play, traders to sell produce and for people to socialise. The Red Flag Act was an imperfect attempt to recognise that these vulnerable road users needed protection from the newly emerging motorised traffic. If we fast-forward to the present day, we have largely effected the protection of the vulnerable by excluding them from the roads. We have erected barriers and invented the spurious concept of jaywalking (i.e. it’s your own bloody fault if you get hit by a car). It takes a relatively brave person to cycle on our roads and no pedestrian, other than the foolhardy, would set foot on a road except to cross it as quickly as possible. In other words, through the repeal of the red flag laws and subsequent relaxations on speed limits, motor vehicle users have wrestled the public roads from their historical users.

I am not of course advocating the return of the man with the red flag but I am advocating a return to the implicit presumption that in built-up areas, pedestrians, cyclists and children playing should have greater authority to use our roads than vehicle drivers. Of course cars need to access these roads, but drivers must do so as guests, minding their speed and mindful that it is they who must be wary of the vulnerable, not the other way around. By taking this approach we can go some way to recreating the less menacing and friendlier road environment that existed before the explosion in motor vehicle use. Remembering the reason why the Red Flag Act was created reminds of how we have allowed cars to dominate where they should not. We can and should redress that fact.

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