Skip to main content

Look out in the blackout

Road traffic accidents

Full print version, including charts and tables

The first car crash is reputed to have occurred in a steam-powered vehicle in 1771; but data on the number of accidents and fatalities on British roads is available only for the period since 1926.

Although the number of vehicles registered for use on the roads has increased 23-fold since then, the number of accidents, and people killed, has more than halved.

The wartime blackout, when regulations required streetlights to be turned off and traffic signals and headlights to be dimmed, led to a dramatic increase in road casualties. The King's surgeon, writing in the British Medical Journal in 1939, complained that by “frightening the nation into blackout regulations, the Luftwaffe was able to kill 600 British citizens a month without ever taking to the air”. The number of deaths peaked in 1940 at 9,169. One person died that year for every 200 vehicles on the road; today the figure is one for every 20,000.

Government policy on road safety in the early years of the car was erratic. A state of parochial caution existed until 1896, requiring cars to be preceded by a pedestrian with a flag and to travel at no more than 2mph in built-up areas. But by 1930, the Government was legislating for anarchy. Arguing in rather circular fashion that year for an abolition of speed limits for cars (which did indeed occur), the Transport Minister Herbert Morrison pointed out that:
“… there was not one of their Lordships who observed the speed limit [and] it is probably true to say that there is not one Member of the House of Commons who observes the speed limit. I venture to say that as legislators we are not entitled to enforce and to continue speed limits.”

The outright abolition of speed limits lasted only four years, but it was not until 1965 that a general upper limit of 70mph was applied to all roads. This, together with the introduction of drink-driving limits (1967), coincides with the peacetime peak in road fatalities, of 7,985 in 1966. These regulations, together with compulsory seatbelt wearing (introduced in 1983 for front-seat and 1991 for rear-seat passengers), improvements in highways engineering and junction design, clearer hazard marking and developments in car safety technology have all contributed in varying degrees to the steady decline in road casualties over the past four decades. For the first time since records began, fewer than 2,000 people were killed on the roads in 2010.

The rate of fatalities and injuries from motor cars has declined steadily since the end of WWII
The chart shows the number of accidents causing injury per 100 registered vehicles and the number of fatalities per 1,000 vehicles.

The chart shows the number of accidents causing injury per 100 registered vehicles and the number of fatalities per 1,000 vehicles

Olympic Britain


If you would like to give us feedback about the Olympic Britain book, please do so by email:

Find out more about the sources used in the Olympic Britain book