Accidents waiting to happen: Bull bars will not be banned until several people have died, says Christian Wolmar

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The Independent Online
ONE OF these days a van will plough into a bus queue. Or perhaps a little girl will step in front of a car. And because the vehicles in both cases were fitted with bull bars - the designer bumpers originally intended for off-road vehicles - someone will be lying dead in the gutter when they might otherwise just have been injured.

There will be a big hoo-hah with lots of calls for action by the press. Ministers will respond by initiating research and blaming Brussels for its inability to implement regulations. As with seat belts in coaches, it will be too late to save the lives of those already killed.

Robert Key, the roads minister, knows this. His predecessor, Kenneth Carlisle, first tried to stir up a fuss over this issue more than a year ago, but failed. He wrote to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) in April 1993 asking it to consider imposing a voluntary ban on bull bars, but was firmly rebuffed. He never received a reply to his letter.

Three months later, at a meeting with Key, Carlisle's successor, the society said that it would not support voluntary restrictions. It argued that a ban would be unenforceable, and that motorists would get bars from back-street garages, which would be much more dangerous than those fitted by manufacturers.

At the meeting, the SMMT put the ball back in the Government's court. Faced with this, Mr Key chose to do nothing - except to condemn bull bars as 'macho and unnecessary'. He claimed that it would be impossible to put forward proposals for a ban at this stage because there was no evidence to support restrictions. In the meantime, he asked the police to collect information on bull bars from every motor accident that they investigate. But it will be at least another 12 months before evidence from this source could produce any meaningful data. Action will be years away.

Meanwhile, the Transport Research Laboratory has estimated that 35 people, including 15 children, will be killed by bull bars on the roads every year by 1996. This prediction is based on a conservative estimate that by then 2 per cent of vehicles will be fitted with bull bars. But just a casual look at passing traffic indicates that they are the latest craze spreading across Britain: soon hundreds of thousands of vans, cars and off- roaders will be fitted with bull bars.

There is little need for more research to justify taking action. Research in Germany has unequivocally found that bull bars can be lethal. Harald Zellmer, of BAST, the German equivalent of the Transport Research Laboratory, has been testing bull bars on dummy heads as part of a broader project aimed at reducing injuries to pedestrians from cars. The goal is to redesign cars to ensure that a blow would not be life-threatening if the vehicle were travelling at less than 40kph (25mph). Dr Zellmer found that all four bull bars from Japanese and German vehicles that he tested inflicted serious injuries when the vehicles were travelling at 20kph.

Children are most at risk because bull bars are often fitted at the same height as their heads. Dr Zellmer reckons that 15 per cent of pedestrians hit by cars are children, a group in which head injuries would be almost inevitable if the vehicle were fitted with bull bars. Moreover, he adds that 'children would not suffer head injuries from cars without bull bars since other parts of their bodies would take the impact'.

Back in Britain, Mr Key seems concerned that a ban would be politically impractical if it proved impossible to find any deaths caused solely by bull bars. The Government could not risk jobs being lost in bull bar manufacturing companies. Yuppies would no longer feel 'safe' behind the wheels of their Safari cars, and van fleet managers would have to fork out a bit extra to repair minor damage to their vehicles because they would not be protected by bull bars.

So the department is waiting for someone to be killed. Or even better, half a dozen people. That would make it easier for ministers to act. What underlines this approach is the notion that intervention and regulation are, a priori, a bad thing. They should not be employed except in the most extreme cases because such decisions are far better left to the market.

When the Government began tackling the issue, Kenneth Carlisle asked the Transport Research Laboratory to try to find a way of making bull bars safe. This was impossible, so instead of providing funds for research into the potential danger they caused, Carlisle simply dropped the matter.

The reason bull bars are proving a tricky issue is that they are the ultimate consumer product. They serve no purpose - although some companies claim they put them on their fleets because they save money in avoiding damage from minor scrapes. In fact, in more serious smashes, the rigidity of the bull bars means the impact is transmitted to the chassis, possibly causing a write-off.

Bull bars are also a symbol of individualism, a permanent V-sign to the world that says 'I'm big and macho, so get out of my way, you shrimp'. Dr Zellmer has developed a safe, plastic alternative but that is missing the point.

The transport ministers would not have got into all this trouble had the Transport Research Laboratory been more compliant. That day is likely to come soon. It is being prepared for privatisation, possibly next year. Already there have been redundancies and demoralisation has set in among the 600 staff.

The Department of Transport has said The Transport Research Laboratory will be sold off as a whole, but many members of staff believe the likelihood of any company being interested in buying such a large research organisation is remote. So it will probably be split up - and the favourites to buy key elements are the motor manufacturers themselves, the very people who are continuing to install bull bars on new vehicles.