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By William Sims on

The history behind making Britain’s roads safe

This National Road Safety Week (14 - 20 November 2022) William Sims, Associate Curator at the National Collections Centre, explores the origins of the Transport Road and Research Laboratory and the work they carry out to make our roads safe.

There are 247,500 miles of road in the UK. For scale, that’s further than the distance between the earth and the moon: 238,855 miles. It is a lot of road.

In 2020, a year dominated by lockdown, British drivers collectively covered 280.5 billion miles. These large numbers seem abstract and inconceivable, as our use of roads is essential in our day-to-day lives but their history is long and varied.

Whether we travel by motorbike, car, bicycle or as a pedestrian, our road infrastructure is involved in most everyday tasks.

Many of us don’t think much about it. Yet a vast amount of thought has gone into our road infrastructure and its design, in order to make it as safe as possible. For approaching a century, the Transport Road and Research Laboratory has been responsible for world-leading research in this critically important area.

At the beginning of the 20th century. the advent of the motor car and a transition away from horse-drawn travel promised incredible possibilities. For the first time individuals could move large distances independently creating a freedom not seen before.

This advance came remarkably quickly: the first journey by a car on British roads is believed to have been taken by Hon. Evelyn Ellis, a wealthy early motoring pioneer, in 1895 and just sixteen years later in 1911, London had largely switched from horse power to motor power. Ministers quickly realised that the new technologies needed to be effectively regulated and the Ministry for Transport was created in 1919.

Panhard Levassor 4hp motor car, 1894-5. owned by the Hon Evelyn Ellis, was one of a small number of pioneer British motorists who had the vision to see the importance of the developing motor car. The first car imported into Britain, it made its first road journey of 90 km (56 miles) on 5 July 1895.
The Hon. Evelyn Ellis on the First Panhard Car brought to England, 1908.

Key to early developments was The Road Improvement Act of 1925, which allowed the ministry to conduct experiments that would ‘lead to the improvement of construction of roads’.

In 1930 the intriguingly named “experimentation station” was established at Harmondsworth and in 1933 the Road Research Laboratory was established. It would later grow into being the Transport and Road Research Laboratory in 1972.

Responsible for laboratory research and full-scale Ministry of Transport experiments, its initial programme included research into road construction, road usage, development of testing apparatus as well as investigations into psychological effects on drivers.

The organisation’s success lay in its commitment to gaining knowledge through practical research. This research often came in novel forms, and to those who lived near the organisation’s testing facility in Crowthorne, Berkshire, the facility must have seemed like Q’s laboratory in James Bond.

While there was no laser-gun jet-packs or flamethrower bag-pipes there was a large test track that hosted skid-testing. This involved an area being sprayed with a large amount of water before a car, pulling behind it a special measuring device, would speed along and suddenly brake to test the stopping distance of a car travelling at speed.

Tests of heated roads to help prevent skidding on ice in the winter, and early experiments with driverless cars to deal with the problem of guiding a car through thick fog, were just some experiments that the laboratory conducted.

A Jaguar XJ6 used as part of brake testing experiments is now in the SMG collection.
Citroen type DS19 automatically guided motor car, 1960. This 1960 Citroen DS19 was modified by the Road Research Laboratory as part of experiments into the automatic steering of vehicles.

Never was the spirit of experimentation more present than in the lab’s activities during World War Two. Previous research had largely focused on road materials, and their improvement to aid safety, but the war brought a need for rapid testing and development in a whole host of different areas.

Research into everything from plastic armour, removing the need for expensive metal armouring of vehicles, to rapid runway production saw the laboratory at the very centre of wartime innovation.

Sir William Glanville, director of the RRL, was even involved in the testing and refining of Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bomb. Models of the dams that the “dambusters” would eventually successfully strike were created at the laboratory and then tested with small explosive charges to see how they reacted. The precision of the eventual raid in May 1943 was in part enabled by the tests carried out at RRL.

The post-war years brought further change as more and more households were able to afford a car, and the roads of Britain became even busier. Accident rates were incredibly high with 4,513 fatalities in 1948 – compare that with 1,792 in 2016 when there were far more cars on the road.

Ministerial and public concern meant the RRL was tasked with investigating ways of making the roads safer. Pedestrian deaths were high and it became an urgent priority to make pedestrian crossings more conspicuous.

Various ways to make crossings more visible were trialled, with a crossing featuring a basic thick stripe pattern, what we now call a “zebra” crossing, emerging as the best. In 1949 Pedestrian Crossing Week was launched, with 1,000 crossings marked. 25 of them were studied in detail by RRL to assess their effectiveness.

The research was conclusive; by 1951 zebra crossing were required by law and by 1953 flashing lit beacons were added to increase their visibility at night.  This simple and basic method and zebra pattern is now seen at junctions around the world.

The zebra crossing and the pelican crossing are ubiquitous to us now, but did you know about the toucan crossing and the puffin crossing?

Different types of crossings © Transport Research Laboratory

Many of the principles we take for granted on our roads were dreamed up at the unit. In Britain we give way to the right at a roundabout; that rule was the result of years of pain-staking research and trials at the laboratory. Its chief architect, former wing commander Frank Blackmore, even faced derision from his peers for his belief in a principle that we now all use each time we use a roundabout.

While imagining a world before a universal give way rule may not be as profound as imaging a world before, let’s say, electricity, Wing Commander Blackmore’s design undoubtedly aided traffic flow and reduced incidents.

What underpinned everything that the transport research laboratory did was the translation of its research into meaningful actions that improved Britain’s roads, whether it be for its users or the longevity of the roads themselves. Its research was world leading.

The institution was privatised in 1998 and today, TRL Ltd, and its (much newer) Smart Mobility Living Lab, test technologies at the National Collections Centre (NCC) near Wroughton in Wiltshire.

Set on the edge of the Wessex downs, the NCC houses thousands of objects from the heart of our collection, holding many of its objects in a series of hangars from the old RAF Wroughton on its 568 acre site.

At the heart of TRL’s work remains the same principle: to generate evidence to inform a decision on a change to Britain’s road laws and it is hard to think of an institution whose research and recommendations have been so widely adopted.

The Transport and Road Research Laboratory’s impact has been enormous. It’s impossible to calculate the figures exactly but its research has undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. Its continual innovation and world-leading research make Britain’s roads some of the safest in the world.

Many of the innovations are used unknowingly daily by us all; their importance should nonetheless be celebrated.