Never mind Zebras’ diamond anniversary, they’ll soon be extinct
In a development completely unanticipated by the Chamberlain Files editorial board, local government expert (and only occasional anorak wearer) Chris Game makes the case for Zebra crossings. No, we’re not making this stuff up…
You can always tell a slowish news day by the readiness with which the media resort to birthdays and commemorations. Bangladesh’s cricket triumph and Ed Balls’ cha-cha-cha notwithstanding, last Monday must have struck some of those at The Times as a touch torpid, for someone proposed celebrating 65 years of zebra crossings. [Message to Ed. PLEASE head this blog with something other than the Beatles’ Abbey Road crossing!].
It was a risky choice anyway, as there were bound to be Times readers who reckoned that, say, Martin Luther kicking off the Protestant Reformation in Wittenberg in 1517, or the ending of the Battle of Britain in 1940, might have edged it.
But it turned out that readers’ greater concern was the pettier one that zebras were in fact born quite a bit before 1951. They were the post-war response to the growth of road traffic and, despite the proliferation of the pre-war Belisha Beacons, the rising numbers of road accidents, particularly involving young children (like me).
The Road Research Lab chaps (I’m sure they must have been chaps) came up with some alternating dark and light stripes that the visiting junior Transport Minister James Callaghan (not sure what happened to him) suggested could be called a Zebra Crossing, on the grounds that it would appeal to and be remembered by children.
Thus it was that a week in April 1949 was designated ‘Pedestrian Crossing Week’, and a thousand sets of black and white stripes (or in some cases blue and yellow – don’t ask!) were painted across the nation’s roads – and, at least initially, were widely ignored by most pedestrians. Indeed, as shown in the photo of Slough, the Berkshire town that claims to have had the very first Zebra, even two years later some still seemed anxious NOT to dirty the nice white strips by actually walking on them.
Part of the problem undoubtedly was that they were a kind of voluntary exercise – for all concerned. Pedestrians couldn’t be compelled to use them, and, although there were encouraging whitewashed footprints leading up to the crossings, many regarded the whole thing as an imposition.
Perhaps more surprisingly, even after the new Zebra Crossing Regulations were introduced in November 1951 – the anniversary The Times was attempting to celebrate – there was a vagueness about whether the crossing pedestrians or the cross motorists actually had the right of way.
Nor did the 1954 Highway Code improve things much, assuring pedestrians that they did have precedence, but should still “be sensible, and wait for a suitable gap in the traffic, so that drivers have time to give way.”
The arrival of the zebras actually reduced quite substantially the total numbers of crossings, as ‘unconverted’ Belisha crossings were increasingly abandoned – to be gradually succeeded over time by any number of zebra variants, most, thanks possibly to Jim Callaghan’s chance observation, named after P-initialled animals: Pandas, Pelicans, Pegasus, Puffins.
My favourites were the Pelicans – not because of their push-buttons or the little green men, but because for a brief period they were called PelicOns, as a kind of acronym of PEdestrian LIght CONtrolled, until presumably someone realised that it wasn’t a terribly good idea for the children for whom they were particularly intended actually to be taught a misspelling.
My VERY favouritest crossing in the whole world, though, and certainly part of the pretext for this blog, is the one controlled, and I mean controlled, by Miffy’s traffic lights, in central Utrecht in the Netherlands – Miffy, for the benefit of any unworldly readers, being a little white rabbit, beloved by particularly Dutch children, who incidentally is only slightly younger than zebra crossings, having recently celebrated her 60th birthday.
Which brings us full circle, for, having missed the Zebra’s 65th birthday, The Times may not have that many more celebratory opportunities. You may recall a touching, if slightly bizarre, plea last year from Walsall councillor, Doug James, calling on us to “adopt a zebra” as part of his campaign to save these iconic crossings from extinction.
They are disappearing fast, with apparently 1,500 lost in the Greater West Midlands region alone in the previous two years – or, as Cllr James put it, “shoved from the street scene by all-singing, all-dancing alternatives such as panda, pelican and tiger crossings”.
Being a pelican (and Miffy) man myself, I shalln’t be adopting, but even I was shocked by the apparent determination of ‘the authorities’ to hasten the Zebra’s extinction. As reported just last month, no sooner had one showed signs of settling down in the albeit unfamiliar habitat of Colmore Row than “Council transport chiefs … immediately sent out staff to start breaking it up and remove it”.
These are indeed callous times we live in.
Editor’s Note: sorry couldn’t resist. Main pic. courtesy of Traffic Technology Today. Please don’t be miffed, Chris.
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