January 24, 2014
As part of the ongoing austerity measures, local authorities are under unprecedented financial pressure to cut expenditure in order to balance their books.
A well publicised measure adopted by many councils has seen street lighting either dimmed or turned off altogether. Responses received by 122 out of a total of 152 councils, showed some 35 councils had turned lights off, 72 were dimming lights, while 26 were doing both.
Whilst appreciating the difficult task faced by local authorities in dealing with such swingeing cuts to budgets, there must be a balance between reducing expenditure without creating an increased risk to the general public.
Perfect Storm for Injury
Street lighting is by definition there for a reason and as such turning it off or even dimming it could have serious implications. There is real potential for a 'perfect storm' for injuries to pedestrians and motorists resulting from dark, unlit roads and paths combined with dangerous pothole ridden surfaces that have not been repaired, again due to financial constraints.
Both the AA and RoSPA have issued clear warnings about the increased danger posed by lighting being dimmed or switched off.
In particular, the AA warned that low lighting makes fatal accidents more likely at night. On well-lit country roads, 3.1 per cent of accidents are fatal, compared to 4.9 per cent of crashes on unlit roads, according to the organisation's figures.
A tragic example of this risk becoming reality is the death of Bedfordshire student Archie Wellbelove, who died having been hit by a taxi last December. At the inquest, the Coroner ruled that a lack of street lighting had materially contributed to his death.
Concerns for Public Safety
In addition to the risk of injury, there are also justified concerns that switching off street lighting will result in an increase in burglaries and anti-social behaviour. One rightly assumes well lit areas to be safer than dark routes and advice to members of the public has always been to favour well lit paths during the hours of darkness.
But there is evidence that some local authorities are beginning to revisit their plans to switch off street lighting. Leeds City Council is amongst a number of authorities to recently reconsider their decision, in this instance primarily as a response to a campaign by local residents who fear an increase in burglaries as a consequence of the plan.
Other councils are investigating the possibility of achieving costs savings by switching to modern LED street lighting. Whilst upgrading street lighting will bring electricity cost savings in the medium to long term, there is of course the initial replacement costs which may be an obstacle that cannot be overcome for already cash strapped councils.
Financial Gain, Safety Loss
As a Solicitor who sees both road accidents and public injury claims everyday, I understand the importance that good lighting and visibility plays in ensuring the safety of individuals.
I have grave concerns that the relatively modest economic gains that can be achieved by a programme of turning off street lighting may have a disproportionate impact on the number of accidents suffered and criminal activity experienced.