Car Culture: Emergency Deaths

A weekly look at what sucks in our world of cars, plus some god bits


The coronavirus lock-down has an odd affect on cars and drivers

Witnessing a pedestrian crossing a wide road deep in thought, almost get hit by an oncoming car presumably assuming the road empty of vehicles under lock-down, the incident reminded me of something I had read just days before.

In an Oxford historian’s account of how the plucky Brits could have avoided the First World War, pretty sickening to read the evidence – and could have stopped Hitler in his ambitions before he murdered anybody in sight, I read the phrase, “The Luftwaffe killed more people in Britain without flying a plane than ever they did by dropping bombs.”

I had to think about the phrase some minutes before realising the author was referring to the blackout, the war years equivalent of lock-down. All vehicles, motorbikes and cycles too, had to avoid night driving, or if an essential journey, reduce their headlights to a slit. Eventually, metal headlight or Bakelite hoods were sold to fit vehicles, domestic or trade. Show too much light and a Dad’s Army warden fined you.

Could the claim be true, that the Nazis killed more folk by doing nothing? Well, as they say on the improvisational television panel game, “Would I Lie To You?” it was indeed the truth, or at least some truth attached to it. 

In the ‘phony war’, that is the early months of 1939, when Germany was sabre rattling and Neville Chamberlain still wearing unfashionable wing collars and carrying his trusted umbrella flew back and forth to parley with a duplicitous Hitler, road deaths were around 600 a month. In the first year the claim was almost 7,300 people died by car accident. When German bombing raids began they caused enormous destruction and heavy civilian casualties—some 43,000 English, Welsh and Scots killed and another 139,000 wounded. Since then, cars have slaughtered many hundreds of thousands in peacetime, a sobering statistic that normally would have any other human activity halted indefinitely until a safe method could be found.

The highest number of deaths was in 1941: 9,169. The highest in peace times was 7,895 in 1966, the days before safety belts and toughened windscreens. As a comparison, between 1951 and 2006 a total of 309,144 people were killed and 17.6 million were injured in accidents on British roads. Amen. Driving has become safer since then, a lot owing to safety features in cars, but Sweden is still the safest country to drive in.

In the war years reckless drivers slaughtered pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers in an attempt to go faster than the length of their headlight illumination allowed. It was, by all accounts, a nightmare. I have an image of cars creeping around with hooded and slatted headlights, no tail lights, the driver wearing a gas mask looking through a dirty split screen windscreen on a foggy night.

Back in the day the slogan was ‘Look Out for the Black Out’, a homemade truism similar to, ‘Don’t Breathe Face Down in the Water’. Driving around in the pitch dark with the equivalent of a candle’s illumination killed anything that crossed its path.

The hardest part of driving was gauging the width of a vehicle. A lot of vehicles had their headlights within their body girth not sitting on the fender or outer body edges as now, two feet or more of mudguard and running board projecting either side, a guarantee to crunch another vehicle coming in the opposite direction or parked. To indicate width some drivers took to painting a bold white stripe on their bumpers, and along the lip of the mudguard and bottom edge of the car,.

Parking alongside a pavement kerb was another hazard. In cities, women were drafted to add white stripes along pavement edges. Lampposts were few and far apart, lighting standards a lot lower than today – you could still see the starry heaven on a clear night!

Drivers unable to take the full measures prescribed under the Lighting Restriction Order were allowed to employ the following improvised methods for one night only: Sidelamps – covered by two thicknesses of newspaper, with side, rear or top panels completely obscured; Headlamps – thick cardboard disc behind the glass, with a semi-circular hole not more than two inches wide, the straight side uppermost and not above the centre line of the lamp; Rear Lamps – all glass panels other the obligatory red lamp completely obscured and the red light covered with two thicknesses of newspaper. From sunset to sunrise all buildings had to conform to the strict rules, with windows blacked out or blinds pulled down. Coronavirus is a doddle wearing face masks and gloves.

Among adventures in total blackout Britain, some hilarious, some matter-of-fact, I found this sad anecdote from Sydney Hetherington:

“I can well recall walking home using my bicycle to feel the kerb, hoping that I would not take a wrong turning. If that happened one was completely dis-oriented and one could only hope to meet someone who could put you back on track. In one instance, near where I lived, a man mistook a left turn and, instead of turning down the road he wanted, he turned down a track leading to the canal. He fell in and although his cries could be heard, he drowned before anyone could locate him.”

In coronavirus lock-down we have over-zealous police officers telling walkers and joggers and folk isolated on rural paths not to take a breather on the grass verge or a park bench or be fined. In war years it was a Bill Pertwee shouting “Put that bloomin’ light arf!”

With a far-right Tory government in power analysing and calculating how docile we are, citizens arrested for stopping while getting and hour’s fresh air, is more than worrying.



The coronavirus is a bugger as well as a nasty bug. Folk with cars purchased on the never-never, that is loans and hire contracts, owners now unable to earn a living while under lock-down, are struggling to make ends meet and pay their monthly car fee. The financial regulator has said car finance companies must offer a three-month payment freeze and should not repossess vehicles if customers are facing financial difficulties because of the coronavirus. Know your rights:  the emergency measures include payday loan firms giving customers a one-month interest payment holiday. In addition, consumers with other credit products – such as buy-now-pay-later, rent-to-own and pawnbroking agreements – must also be allowed three-month payment freezes if they face temporary financial difficulties.

Car computers

There’s a debate going on in the studios of car designers over whether cars with all controls on a computer screen dash mounted (Tesla, the best known), is the safest way to drive a car in the modern age. Somewhere a few weeks back I offered the opinion a single device placed facia-central is sure to take your attention off the road. Interesting to see Honda’s new electric car has kept the heater controls as turn-knobs. Honda thinks heater controls set in a computer readout counter-intuitive.

The rolling stop

One quirk of lock-down reducing traffic to a few cars an hour are careless drivers using the rolling stop to move out of T-junctions or onto roundabouts. A ‘rolling stop’ is the American term for crossing double white lines slowly but not stopping. Broken double white lines mean STOP! – check left and right to see if all is safe to proceed. Double white line road markings must not be straddled or crossed as if they did not exist. On three occasions I’ve almost been T-boned by lazy drivers disregarding road markings and assuming the road they want to move into is free of traffic. They just hate stopping for anything. It is only a matter of time before….. as the old joke goes, if you don’t like my driving stay off the pavement!

Happy motoring!

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1 Response to Car Culture: Emergency Deaths

  1. greig12 says:

    Your mentioning of over zealous police officers GB caused me to think that come the end of this, if indeed there is an end, the post mortem must include firm guidelines for the future.

    A comprehensive review of the lockdown situation, it’s effects on people and how services responded must be carried out. Consultation to determine what the positive and beneficial behaviours of services were and how that should be acknowledged and built upon will be very important. Consequent rules and procedures must be put in place to ensure that during future outbreaks the population are not at the mercy of public officials putting their own spin on the rules and making it up as they go along. Public education needs to be in place to prevent people in more isolated places imposing restrictions of their own devising on people coming into the areas they inhabit.

    The use of open spaces needs to be formalised for the benefit of all and this must include parks and other open spaces in cities, including golf courses. I’m not talking about tourism here, I’m talking about relatively local people utilising the open public spaces they could normally access.

    The herding of people in built up areas through the closing of parks and car parks is in my opinion detrimental and aides the spread of contagion. Public use of these areas needs to be properly managed not closed off during times of crisis. Social distancing is being managed in shops so surely it must be easier to do so outside in the great blue yonder. We don’t all have to be totally miserable, do we? Denying access to open space to people living in flats is not on and needs sorted.

    There’s a lot could be done now to improve everybody’s sense of well being. Realistically that’s not going to happen because the folk making the rules are relatively well off or have chosen to live outside a city. They’re more than likely going home to sit in their gardens.

    It’ll be up to us to make sure that future situations are managed better.

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