Asking people to behave, instead of making them

A post by Joe Dunckley yesterday – about how we keep expecting education and awareness to change driver behaviour, ahead of physical engineering – reminded me of something I’d been meaning to write about for a while. It was provoked by this sign I came across in the village of Rotherwick, in Hampshire.Beneath the standard ‘watch out for children’ warning triangle, some locals have evidently felt the need to ask drivers to ‘please’ slow down, attaching a do-it-yourself sign to the pole.

Needless to say, although the locals are asking drivers to slow down to 20mph, the speed limit through the village – and past the school – remains set at 30mph. The official limit is on the pole on the other side of the road.

But hey, drivers have been warned there’s a school here – they’ll all drive carefully, won’t they?

And there’s a similar example in the village of Partridge Green in West Sussex – again, by the village school.


A ‘kill speed not kids’ sign near the junction with the school is, of course, not accompanied by any corresponding low speed limit, or physical measures to enforce it.IMG_0374Although the DIY sign here has a picture of a zebra crossing, there isn’t any crossing, at all, outside the school itself – but there are some barriers to stop people crossing the road where they might actually want to.

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 10.56.34Perhaps the pick of the bunch, though, is this DIY sign outside William Penn Primary School in Coolham, which is aimed at… the primary schoolchildren themselves. Behave!


Nice of West Sussex County Council to do absolutely nothing to make this dead straight road – just outside of a 60mph limit – safer for schoolchildren.

And it’s not just outside schools. The residents of Tower Hill – a rural road, but with plenty of housing along it, and no footpath – plainly feel that the 60mph limit through where they live is preposterous, and have made their own speed limit signs. There have been many crashes here.IMG_3509All this is sadly symptomatic of the British approach to dealing with traffic danger. At locations where there really shouldn’t be fast motor traffic, and where there is clear local demand for low vehicle speeds (people are making these signs and attaching them themselves) there isn’t anything to make drivers behave, or design that reduces the danger posed to vulnerable road users; only informal requests and home-made signs.

Perhaps the background assumption here is the one Joe describes in his post – that the British driver is innately well-mannered, and doesn’t really need to be told what to do; he’ll either be behaving sensibly already, and if not, polite requests will be sufficient.

the British tradition of soft measures goes far wider, deeper and further back… Motorists may moan about having been the victim of a “war” that restricts their freedom, polices their movements, or sends campaigns of severe punishment for accidental and unavoidable infringement of petty rules, but the reality is that right from the start, when the red flag acts were repealed, this country’s response (and that of much of the English-speaking world) to the problems that motorists create on the road has largely been light touch and libertarian, in which the children are simply asked again and again to play nice, even as they become ever greater bullies, and only if they’re really bad might they have their pocket money docked. We encourage and raise awareness, appeal to the legendary British sense of fair play, and still believe that the ideal road is within reach if only we can persuade everybody to get along through courtesy, good manners, and communicating our intentions clearly to one another.

But these homemade signs are symptomatic of a failure of that strategy. They wouldn’t exist if drivers responded properly to their environment; there wouldn’t be any need to exhort them to slow down to an appropriate speed if they were already doing it. Moreover, there wouldn’t be any need for barriers to stop children crossing the road where they want to, if we could rely on drivers approaching schools at a sensible speed.

What these signs demonstrate are that ‘soft’ measures – education, exhortation, awareness, and so on – don’t work. We need physical environments that make people behave, and that design in safety. If we want people to drive slowly, that needs to come from the design of the road or the street in question, not from home-made signs that plead desperately for sensible behaviour.

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31 Responses to Asking people to behave, instead of making them

  1. Precisely why I’m leaving the UK and moving to the Netherlands after years of badgering my local council to think about why 99% of the parents drive everywhere. I’ve said my piece, as have many others in the same position but our local authority, like every other say something like “the numbers of people crossing here don’t even justify a lolly pop lady”.
    The flagrant abuse of speed limits and guidelines on driving appropriately to weather conditions is also partly down to cars being more designed to go faster than our roads allow – is there a gear for 20mph? Most drivers say it’s not easy to say around that speed.
    In any case, I can’t see it changing, it needs at least 40% to revolt against it and the motor car has been taken into the hearts of pretty much everyone I know as a trusty safe friend, it’s depressingly unlikely that they will try to restrict a trusty safe friend. I feel like I’m in some bad film where almost everyone is brainwashed.
    I can’t wait to live back in the Dutch sanity of going out for a drink with my friends…by bike.
    The Netherlands is far from perfect (especially if you ask their cycle campaigners) but I will at least get to ride with my kids every day, which is very important to me.
    The UK has failed my kids and boy, am I angry!

  2. Antony says:

    A lot of these signs are meant to look home-made, but are placed there by local authorities in the belief that drivers will respond to an unofficial-looking sign more positively. You can see this in the sixth picture down, where there’s a Sussex CC logo in the bottom right hand corner.

    As well as demonstrating a naive belief in the power of signs to override people’s behaviour, this also speaks volumes about the budgets allocated to road safety, and the willingness of local authorities to make difficult decisions about street design.

    • D. says:

      “You can see this in the sixth picture down, where there’s a Sussex CC logo in the bottom right hand corner.” – you’ll probably find that the poster was the winning design of a local schools competition or something like that.

    • Amanda Jupp, one of the West Sussex councillors is trying to get the default speed limit on all West Sussex unclassified roads lowered to 40mph. Of course it is only a start -many roads need some physical changes to ensure compliance or an even lower limit- but support from cyclists could help persuade WSCC to take the plunge and make it a reality.
      Any West Sussex residents on here can tell their stories and lend their support by emailing her at

  3. Danny Yee says:

    I find 2nd gear works perfectly for 20mph – if I try to go any faster then it feels wrong.

    There be a law mandating 20mph speed limits outside schools.

    • Matt says:

      Agreed. I have been driving for more than 20 years and I have had lots of different cars, petrol, diesel with 4, 5 and 6 speed gearboxes. All cars can be driven smoothly at 20MPH, just pick the correct gear.

      • Paulc says:

        correct, they only have problems driving at 20 if they’re in 4th or above…. 2nd is excellent for driving at 20, but the vast majority of car drivers are of the belief it’s wasteful of fuel… as they’ve been brainwashed into changing up as quickly as possible and only changing down when at a junction.

        • That’s encouraging, as a non-driver, I didn’t want to just blame the drivers, I know with automatics you can set the speed but could it be made easier for manuals? It sounds like we have some excellent drivers here, but as a passenger, I’ve seen both extremes.

  4. On the ‘make people behave’ side you do have to be careful of unintended consequences. Like cars riding over pavements to avoid speedbumps, or people hopping over barriers instead of going around them. There have been problems around here with motorcyclists using cycle infrastructure (where roads are closed to cars), but any physical measure to stop motorbikes will also pose a problem to tricycles, trailers and any two-way riding.

    I think there is a place for persuasion, and it can go hand-in-hand with infrastructure solutions. It always amuses me how all the cyclists round here ride on the left of cycle paths. There’s no requirement to, no signage, but they self-organise because it’s in their interests to do so. In these locations they don’t cycle on the pavement, either, because there’s no advantage to doing so. Good provision succeeds where enforcement against anti-social cycling has always failed. You don’t need to make people do things if the good thing to do is also the most beneficial to the individual.

    This isn’t really appropriate for theses particular examples, just mean that there are a variety of tools here for different situations.

    • D. says:

      “It always amuses me how all the cyclists round here ride on the left of cycle paths. There’s no requirement to, no signage, but they self-organise because it’s in their interests to do so.” – I hope I’m not the only one who gets really cross when I am riding along a wide-ish cycle path, keeping left, and then have someone riding straight toward me (I don’t particularly enjoy playing chicken).

      • michael says:

        It seems to happen to me quite often, frequently ending with both of us stopping dead facing each other as I make exasperated facial expressions or mutter something barely audible about ‘the left?’ (I should really be a bit clearer about what the problem is), I reckon a lot of cycle-path users are people who never, ever cycle on the road, so aren’t even aware that there is such a convention.
        Its another minor problem I reckon would go away if we had a mass cycling culture.

    • Dan B says:

      I almost feel that cycle infrastructure should be designed for people on motorbikes to use as a preference – that means it’s wide enough, continuous and direct. It’s almost the litmus-test for high-quality as it prohibits shared use pavements that give way at every side road, and routes that have places where you can’t actually ride (eg steps – thanks Sustrans…)

  5. Matt Turner says:

    Spot on.
    I’ve been thinking recently that the people who put these signs up clearly want change, but they’re powerless to change the environment to fix it, they do the best they can by putting up signs.
    Could this be why we see so many poor/ineffective campaigns from road safety groups who try to persuade road users to ‘share the road’ or ‘be more considerate’. Road safety groups (including official police/council groups) are often completely isolated from the highway engineers who have the tools and mandate to design our roads. My local road safety partnership has very little to do with road design at all and seems to run adverts and give out leaflets.

  6. D. says:

    Who on earth thought that 60 mph was EVER an appropriate speed limit for a road like that last photo (Tower Hill)???

    • Paul says:

      I doubt if anyone did explicitly think that. There is a reluctance to put in lower speed limits unless particular criteria are met. The sensible approach would be to start with 20mph default and have to justify (and mark) higher limits on wide roads with separate pedestrian and bicycle paths.

      • There’s a village a mile away from the town where I live, the road is bendy country road set at 50mph because so many people have crashed on it, there have been calls to have the speed reduced to 40mph on the really bad bit but the county council think that no-one would obey it, so it stays higher. It has a strip of path they won’t widen into a shared path because if they do, they loose the bus to school. Like a mile is too far to cycle or walk. If you ride on the road, it’s like being in death race 2000, on the pavement, you need full suspension and good balance. Every week at least one of the roads from the villages into Ely claims someone’s life.
        Highways and the county council seem to be just as resigned to the fact that most drivers ignore speed limits and signs and pick up the dead bodies at enormous cost to us all. Everyone must be able to drive, no matter how much of a liability they are to themselves and everyone else.

  7. Mick Allan says:

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that education has failed. Driver education – beyond that which all drivers have to undergo to get a license – is non-existent. So education hasn’t failed – we have failed to educate. Driver education worked with drink driving. It worked with seat belts and it worked when we needed to stop people mixing cross-plies with radials. It could work with mobile phone use, red light jumping, cyclist/ ped awareness and speeding if our elected representatives had the will.

    • I agree, the driving licence we have was designed to be the minimum requirement and then you improved with practice. In practice an alarming proportion forget everything they were taught and would certainly never pass again without being extensively re-trained.
      Think how many lives could be saved if they introduced mandatory re-testing every 5 years, or if you got caught breaking the law.
      In the Netherlands there are adverts on telly, the radio and on bill boards with road safety education, they never stop reminding drivers.
      They can’t keep on top of the unregistered, unlicensed and uninsured drivers currently on our roads, with ANPR cameras at petrol stations, it’s slowly getting better but I would guess unless they actually have teams on shift to go after them, they go largely ignored at the moment.

    • michael says:

      I have huge doubts about the logic of that argument. Seat belts are there for the safety of the driver themselves. Educating people about how to keep themselves safe is a very different thing from trying to educate them about being respectful towards, and careful about the safety of, others.
      It would only work if it were coupled with strong penalties for bad driving and rigourous enforcement – such that drivers themselves would face bad consequences for misbheaviour. Otherwise there would always be a tendency to push the obligation of avoiding danger on to the potential victims rather than those who cause the risk.

  8. James says:

    In London lots of the streets are now 20mph but I swear that the majority (not even a large minority) go over this. Even if they do 30mph that is 50% over the limit and would be unacceptable elsewhere. I also oppose to having to pay to build speed humps everywhere because drivers need to be physically restrained from driving too fast even though the law requires it.

    Get an unmarked police car and officer with a speed gun and spend a week in London on 20mph roads and give them all fines and points on the licence. If the Met can spend months targeting cyclists then they can spend a week targeting the people that actually cause the deaths on our roads.

    • michael says:

      I am OK with speed bumps, because they do actually seem to have some effect. Unfortunately they seem to be increasingly replaced these days with road cushions, which have no actual effect on car speeds but just cause drivers to swerve across the road to be able to go over them without slowing down one iota. I can only assume councils prefer them precisely because they involve looking like they are doing something without actually impeding motorists in any way.
      And surely its cheaper to pay for things like speed bumps than it is to pay for the manpower needed to constantly police speed limits with human intervention?

      • Speed bumps have the problem that you have motorists constantly accelerating to pass you, only to slam on the brakes directly in front of you for the speed bump.

        • James says:

          I agree that speed bumps do do the job and are cheaper than policing the roads. I however dislike having to speed my tax money on physical objects in the road simply because a large number of drivers can’t obey the law.

          I also agree with the last comment about the car drivers trying to get past you. I can cycle down Liverpool road in London quicker than a car (unless they are speeding) and yet I get them trying to overtake and negotiate the speed humps and they always make a right mess of it. They cannot sit behind a cyclist, even if the cyclist is going as fast as they would if I wasn’t even there.

    • Paul says:

      In this case I wouldn’t object to the current fashion for bringing in private contractors to be paid from the fines.

  9. Paul Gannon says:

    It’s not only signs, but also in lots of places the ‘authorities’ are putting in masses of paint and ‘rumble-strips’ to inform drivers that they are entering a built-up area and a slower speed limit. But in reality those who respect the additional signage are likely to be those who would anyway have obeyed the simple speed limit signs. Those who speed in any event will continue to do so if they know/think they can get away with it and will continue to drive dangerously. Measures to control misbehaviour need to address the transgressors, not the well-behaved.

    The fundamental choice is one of discarding enforcement. This, it seems to me, has happened for two reasons: 1) cost-saving 2) the successful, multi-year campaign by the motoring lobby, and its eager mouthpieces in national and local press & radio, to portray any attempt to enforce motoring law as a ‘war’ on motorists and any fines as a ‘revenue raising’ tactic.

    The drink-driving law is one counter example. Motorists know that being caught is certain to lead to the ‘severe’ penalty of losing one’s licence for a period and consequent high insurance costs when one gets it back. They know that the law is enforced, sometimes through random testing, and most (though obviously not all) don’t take the chance. Contrast this with the attitude to speeding and using a mobile. Both are disapproved by a majority of driver, but the absence of enforcement means the minority continue to drive too fast and to risk checking their texts on the move. I even saw a driver on a road near where I live with a book propped up in his steering wheel. I can’t see someone like that taking any notice of ‘please drive carefully’ signs.

    Conclusion – the profusion of such signs is a symbol of pretence that something is being done.

    • I think the drink-driving law actually demonstrates the opposite. Cultural changes have been far more successful at changing behaviour than enforcement ever could.

      There are no more drink-driving crackdowns than there are speeding crackdowns round here: usually once or twice a year for both. I don’t think you’re any more likely to get caught. But people have internalised that drink-driving is bad, and that it is irresponsible to do, or let your friends and family drink-drive.

      Contrast speeding and phone use, which are mainstream, if not majority activities. You cannot do enough enforcement to change behaviour on this, except by automated means. People need to think that speeding and distracted driving are bad.

      • Paulc says:

        television and movies have got a LOT to answer for here… they regularly show people having conversations on a mobile while driving… and don’t show the consequences.

      • Paul Gannon says:

        My interpretation is that people have internalised the idea that drink-driving is bad because of the unavoidable consequences of the law in certain circumstances. Have a crash because you were driving too fast and you’ll only suffer at very worst a tiny fine and more likely just a loss of no claims bonus. Have a crash (even if not your fault) when you’ve been drinking and you’re stuffed as you’ll be breathalysed leading to loss of licence and very high future insurance costs. So people have come to not take the risk of drink-driving, then they disapprove of others who do transgress.

        • Paul says:

          Maybe this is an argument for needing BOTH. There was a strong enforcement drive against drink-driving some years ago combined with a public awareness campaign so NOW it is socially unacceptable.

          • Paul Gannon says:

            I agree it is necessary to have both, but it is insufficient to argue that B followed A therefore B was caused A. You argue that there was a publicity campaign and that caused changed attitudes, but there needs to be some evidence or plausible link to establish a causal relationship. Publicity campaigns clearly do not work when it comes to not speeding, not driving dangerously or aggressively or too close, etc, etc, so it would be incorrect to assume that the drink-driving campaign was different (or if it was, why was it different?).
            My argument provides a causal explanation of the disapproval of drink-driving, namely that there is a certainty of dire consequences if you are stopped for any reason including random stops or have even in a minor bash and the police are involved. My argument is also that the disapproval follows changed behaviour and doesn’t precede it as would be required for a publicity campaign to be effective in generating that changed behaviour. Is it really likely that people watched the publicity and, having previously not disapproved of drink-driving, changed their minds, deciding to give up the practice? Or did the publicity back up the fears people had about losing their licence?

  10. Might be worth emphasizing that the Dutch have found that given the right conditions, drivers do adapt to their situation. 130 km/h is fine on a motorway, possibly even more, but not on a school road. Even 100 km/h in rural areas is too high, 60 km/h is a speed the Dutch find ideal (and this is in low volumes).

    I drive myself, usually the reason being that I need the practice to pass the road test, and because I would do the journeys I make anyway, and I can’t convince my dad to ride a bicycle too, I guess we get fish and chips together (my mouth waters just thinking about it). I actually have to do effort to make sure I keep my speeds at the limit, or the best speed for the area (it isn’t required, but I do it anyway, 30 km/h on the residential access roads I drive on, and usually 40 km/h on neighbourhood collector roads), because the design speed is actually quite a bit higher than the posted limit. Usually 130 km/h on a 110 km/h dual carriageway or motorway, or 70 km/h on a 60 road, or similar.

    When the lanes are narrower, for example 3 metre wide lanes, I don’t feel comfortable driving above 50 km/h in the urban area. When there are bumps, I slow right down for them. When there are natural reasons to obey a rule or principle, people do it. People don’t usually murder other people because of altruism. Many people would even not want to kill if that was acceptable by law, sometimes even considered honourable, like conscientious objectors to a draft. Altruism doesn’t help much on roads unfortunately except in the idea that “I really don’t want to cause a crash”. People often think that until people get into a crash, they are safe drivers. It’s a natural feeling. It takes brainpower and deliberate effort to change it or see it in any other way.

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