Turning off street lights – Inquests reveal pattern of death on councils’ blacked out roads

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The FINANCIAL — Six deaths partly caused by councils switching off street lights to save money have left drivers no option but to drive on full beam along faster (40mph) residential roads, says the Automobile Association Developments Limited (AA).

At least five pedestrians and a cyclist have been killed since 2009 because, according to accident investigators at inquests, drivers had little or no chance of avoiding the collisions on blacked-out roads with speed limits of 40mph or higher.

Although some councils have recognised the danger and turned their street lights back on, others are ignoring inquest findings. On 2 July 2014, a Warwickshire County Council committee planned to maintain its late night black-out despite the death of a student in December 2012.

The council has saved £60,000 more than it expected after switching off 80% of its street lights after midnight. It has also found £1 million to switch the remaining street lights to energy-saving LED technology. However, it planned not to convert the lights it turned off on 40mph or higher-speed roads – despite evidence that these are being turned into potential death-traps, according to AA.

Six inquests since 2009
Since 2009, there have been at least six inquests into deaths on blacked-out roads, all where the speed limit was 40mph or more. In four, accident investigators said the drivers stood little or no chance of avoiding the collision:

Archie Wellbelove, Leamington in Warwickshire, December 2012: police were reported saying the driver would have had just two seconds to react even if he had seen the victim.
Dr John Bendor-Samuel, Studley Green in Buckinghamshire, January 2011: the inquest was told that nine out of 10 drivers in cars travelling at that speed with dipped headlights on a dark road would fail to avoid a collision.
Margaret Beeson, nr Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire, January 2009: the coroner said the driver stood “no chance at all” while the accident investigation showed the driver would have seen the victim just 25 to 30 metres away because of the darkness.
Gary Tomkins, Milton Keynes, November 2011: the coroner issued the council a Rule 43 notice asking it to answer his concerns that a similar death may occur.

Other victims on roads where the speed limit was 40mph or more and the street lights turned off were: Daria Pikus (March 2013, Wellingborough) and Sherwin Sequeira (October 2011, Milton Keynes).

Stopping distance

For a car travelling at 40mph, the Highway Code gives a typical stopping distance of 36 metres – 12 to react, 24 to brake – or 120 feet. At 40mph, a car covers 59 feet per second.

In April 2014, the AA highlighted official statistics showing that accident reductions between 2007 and 2012 were far less on 40mph where street lights had been switched off.

Cost-savings paid for with lives

“There is growing evidence that cost-savings from councils turning off street lights are being paid for with lives. In particular, inquests point to a particular danger on roads with speed limits of 40mph or higher,” said Edmund King, the AA’s president.

“Many of these inquests clear the drivers of blame, which means these tragic deaths are accidents waiting to happen. For that reason, drivers have no choice but to slow down and switch to full beam on faster town roads where late night street lighting used to make roads and streets safer places to travel. Previously, they may have preferred to drive on dipped beams to disturb residents less.

“With many more councils switching off their street lights for at least part of the night, the street-light blackout tragedy will just get worse. AA research* shows that 12% of drivers (24% for 18-24 year olds) set off to or return from work in the small hours.

“At what point will the government take action or help councils to finance the switch to energy-saving street lights: 10, 15, 20 inquests later? Until then, the AA is advising its members to use full beam where councils have imposed a blackout, even in residential areas, except where they may dazzle other drivers, riders and pedestrians,” he added.


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