'Killer' car fad that costs lives: They're lethal, but 'bull bars' are now even being fitted to ambulances, Christian Wolmar reports

Christian Wolmar
Saturday 28 May 1994 23:02 BST

THOUSANDS of police cars, ambulances and commercial vans are being fitted with bull bars, the designer bumpers intended for off-road vehicles which can kill pedestrians at speeds as low as 10mph.

Robert Key, the roads minister, calls them 'unnecessary and macho' but has refused to ban them - even though evidence of their lethal nature is increasing. Last July negotiations with manufacturers and importers to impose voluntary controls broke down.

'Bull bars', also known as 'nudge bars' or 'roo bars', were first used in Australia to avoid damage from kangaroos, who are attracted by car headlights. They were introduced in Britain with the growth of the yuppie four-wheel-drive vehicles in the late 1980s. Now they are being fitted to large numbers of commercial vehicles and even ordinary saloon cars.

Bull bars are more dangerous than conventional bumpers and radiator grilles as these are built to crumple on impact while bull bars do not, transmitting the full force to the pedestrian.

According to research at the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) in Bracknell, Berkshire, an extra 35 deaths - including 15 children - a year will be caused on the roads by 1996 if current rates of growth in the use of bull bars are maintained. Earlier this month, in a car safety pamphlet, the Department of Transport gave a powerful warning about their dangers: 'Adults may suffer more serious leg, knee and pelvic injuries with an increased risk of internal injuries. Children are at even greater risk because the top bar might make direct contact with their head.'

The advice was prompted by research at the TRL and in Germany. The German research proved that bull bars are deadly in crashes at low speeds. Whereas 95 per cent of children would be expected to survive the impact of a normal car at 20mph, a vehicle fitted with bull bars would inflict life-threatening injuries on all children it hit at 12mph and many would die even at 10mph.

Two years ago, following complaints about the bars, the Department of Transport, which wanted to avoid alienating the motoring industry with a total ban, asked the laboratory to come up with a 'safe' bull bar. Graham Lawrence, the researcher, says the task was impossible: 'The bars give vehicle owners a macho image. Many are made of steel which is so heavy that if it was thrown at you without the weight of the car behind it, it would still cause serious injury.

'The only way to make them safe would be to have plastic ones, but obviously this would not be the right image for the owners.'

Robert Pounder knows just how devastating bull bars can be. His father, John, aged 86, was killed by a police Ford Transit fitted with bull bars in Hartlepool, Cleveland, in November 1992. Mr Pounder's injuries were horrific, especially given that the police denied the van was speeding in a 30mph zone. According to Mr Pounder, 'my father's spine was broken in five places and his pelvis was so bad that his leg virtually fell off. His body was shattered. The doctor said it was as if he had been hit by a ten-ton truck going at 70mph. The bull bars made a terrible impact.'

Cleveland Police say they fit bull bars 'as they are required in public order situations'. Although their bars are demountable, they are left on permanently. The force refused to comment on the Pounder case, or on the safety aspects of bull bars, as the family is suing the police.

The Government has negotiated on several occasions with the Society of Motor Manufacturers to try and introduce a voluntary ban on bull bars, but with no success. The society's spokesman said: 'If we tried to impose a voluntary ban on manufacturers without the backing of legislation, people would simply go to back street garages and fit home-made bars that would be more dangerous.' He accepted, though, that some types of bars were dangerous and said the society would not resist attempts to impose a statutory ban.

Robert Key, the roads minister, says there is not enough evidence for the Government to draw up proposals - which would have to be approved by the European Union - to change the regulations governing the construction and use of vehicles. He denied that he was waiting for people to die before taking action: 'We are often accused of that in relation to pedestrian crossings but it's not fair.' The police had only just begun to collect evidence on the effects of bull bars in accidents and 'so far we have not come up with a single death'. He also stressed that a ban 'would put people out of work and that would have to be taken into account'.

The TRL is currently undertaking comprehensive research on making cars more pedestrian-friendly in time to draw up European legislation by the year 2000, and this is likely to include a ban on bull bars.

Two organisations, Berkshire ambulance service and the delivery company DHL, whose vehicles have bull bars fitted, are now reconsidering their policy after the advice in the DoT's car safety booklet was pointed out to them by the Independent on Sunday. David Foskett, of the Royal Berkshire Ambulance NHS Trust, which has bars on all 24 accident and emergency ambulances, said: 'We fit them because they save the vehicles from damage they get in little bumps and scrapes. They cost pounds 150 each and have proved very cost-effective. They are not illegal, but in the light of the DoT's advice we will reconsider their use at the next executive meeting.'

The RAC is concerned at the growth in their use and recently banned them from their own vehicles. Edmund King, the RAC's campaigns manager, points out that bull bars are purely ornamental and under existing legislation such objects 'likely to cause danger' are illegal under the 1986 Construction and Use Regulations. 'I would like to see the police bring a test case. The whole trend is ridiculous.

'You don't see many kangaroos down the King's Road. They may be useful in the outback but not in Hackney. At a time when manufacturers are doing a lot to lessen the impact of cars on pedestrians, it seems ridiculous that they are putting on bull bars.'

(Photographs omitted)

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