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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 November 2005, 11:28 GMT
Driving the argument home
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News

A campaign is under way to lower speed limits to 20mph in urban areas, but what's going to make drivers slow down? A bossy road sign, a hump in the road or a three-piece suite parked in the road?

Living room
The "living room" challenge: Who really owns the road?

There's no reason that traffic calming should be boring or without a sense of humour, says children's author and traffic campaigner, Ted Dewan.

And using his Oxford residential street as a test laboratory, Mr Dewan has been working on more creative ways to reduce traffic speed.

"People are too used to being scolded by warning signs telling them about lethal speed and driving. It's like 'tell me something new'. But they're not used to having their wit engaged," he says.

So in a spirit that combines a sense of entertainment with a serious intent, he has come up with the idea of "folk traffic calming".

This is where art installations meet road safety, a kind of sleeping policeman that's been influenced by Damien Hirst.

'We live here'

These type of "DIY traffic-calming happenings" are described by their creator as "roadwitches" and have included an 11-feet high rabbit, a big bed (for a sleeping policeman), a Casualty-style fake crash scene for Halloween and the setting up of a living room in the middle of the road.

Living room in street
Ted Dewan wants "mutual respect" between drivers and pedestrians

"There's an element of fun and mischief, but underneath is the ambition to encourage people to re-examine how roads are used," says Mr Dewan.

"With the living room, it was the most direct way of saying 'We live here. This is our living space.'"

And he says that residents really enjoyed the strangeness of being able to relax outside in their own street, rather than feel it was a place only belonging to the cars that race up and down it.

Residents had forgotten what it was like to have a street without the usual high-volume and low-courtesy of passing traffic.

Initially the street was legally closed, to allow the setting up of this outdoor living room, including such middle-England touches as a standard lamp.

It was then re-arranged to allow traffic to pass through, but Mr Dewan says the reactions of motorists showed how motorists expect nothing to stand in their way.

'Psychotic'

"A driver of a 4x4 didn't so much disapprove - he was too crazed and violent for that. He seemed to be made psychotic by the idea that roads could exist for anything other than him to drive on," he says.

30 mph
Campaigners say the current 30mph limit is too high for residential areas

This motorist deliberately drove into pieces of the living room furniture and then called the council to demand that they shift whatever was left lying in the road.

There were gender differences too, says Mr Dewan. Male drivers didn't seem to like the idea of driving across the carpet. But female drivers were less sympathetic and more aggressive, with a stronger "get out of my way attitude".

It's this sense of entitlement that he says he wants to challenge - leaving a 4x4 blocking half the street is called parking but a couple of chairs and a magazine rack put in the same place is seen as a senseless provocation.

"My daughter isn't allowed to throw snowballs at school, because it's considered too dangerous. But it's meant to be acceptable that she can walk home only inches away from cars driving at lethal speeds. There is something weird about this, a deep cultural bias."

'Selfish'

As the owner of two cars, Mr Dewan says he's far from being anti-motorist, but he wants "mutual respect" between drivers and pedestrians and to stop the "deluded, selfish" way that traffic has come to dominate urban spaces.

Car art
The "roadwitch" project turns traffic calming into an art form

Mr Dewan has plans to extend the roadwitch concept, sending the message that there are "creative, non-confrontational" ways that residents can control what's going on in their own roads - and to assert that roads do not only belong to drivers.

And Tuesday also marks a national day of campaigning by Transport 2000 to support a lower speed limit for residential areas. The "20's Plenty" campaign says a 20mph limit on residential streets would mean a two-thirds reduction in the number of children killed or injured by cars.

Linda Beard, Transport 2000's streets and traffic campaigner, says that "at the moment, we're failing to protect people, especially children, from traffic".

Road mosaic

The use of such lower speed limits in some residential areas is supported by the RAC Foundation, but executive director Edmund King says it has to be part of a balance - with sufficient through-routes to prevent traffic grinding to a halt.

"We support well-planned home zones, but mobility is also important and there have to be streets for movement, where people can go about their business," he says.

Mr King is also sympathetic to more imaginative approaches to traffic calming, and he points to street designs constructed to show drivers that they are entering a residential area.

This might be different coloured road surfaces, or a mosaic embedded in the road showing the street name or a gateway giving the impression that you are about to drive through a place where people are living.

"There needs to be something more creative than just a bump in the road," he says.




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