Trees not palaces are more memorable for Oxfordshire firefighter… for all the wrong reasons


Oxfordshire residents have their favourite landmarks, from Blenheim Palace to the Radcliffe Camera, statue of Alfred the Great in Wantage and the Banbury Cross.

The county’s firefighters also recall notable locations, but for them, these are places that trigger haunting memories of collisions they have attended. No pleasure is taken from viewing these landmarks.

Andy Ford, Oxfordshire County Council Fire and Rescue Service’s road safety manager, explains why roadside hedges and trees, not iconic buildings and statues, resonate with him.

“There’s a tree beside the A418 near Thame. I often think about it,” says Andy.

“Most people won’t notice this tree as they drive by. But I can never forget what I experienced there.”

Andy is referring to a call out to a road traffic collision. A tragedy that cost three lives, and nearly a fourth; saved by the intervention of a seatbelt.

He reluctantly continues his harrowing account, motivated by a determination to save lives as he leads Oxfordshire’s current road safety campaign, ‘It’s not worth the risk’. This highlights four contributory factors to 90% of road traffic collisions across the county:

  • Not wearing a seatbelt
  • Distraction
  • Speed
  • Drink and drugs

Andy recalls the aftermath of the collision near Thame. “The fatal four all played their part on that terrible day. The driver had been speeding and was found to have been under the influence of alcohol. It’s probable they were distracted approaching a bend in the road. They and all but one of their passengers were thrown out of the vehicle or around inside it, because they weren’t wearing their seatbelts.

“I remember what I saw that day, you can’t just switch off a memory like that, particularly when I regularly drive down that same road and pass the same tree.

“But I do try to drag a positive from the horrific scene. There was a survivor. And that survivor was almost certainly saved because they were the one person in the car wearing a seatbelt.

“That’s what motivates me as road safety manager. Knowing that most deaths and injuries are avoidable. Cars don’t kill people. But careless driving and complacency can.

“’It’ll never happen to me’. That’s complacency. But it only takes a second for a collision to happen, and you can’t step back in time afterwards; putting on your seatbelt, reducing your speed, saying ‘no’ to that extra drink, or delaying the important phone-call. Too late”

Andy (54) is passionate about what he does. The Thame resident has been an Oxfordshire firefighter for nearly 30 years. He joined the service in 1991.

He’s attended eight road traffic collision deaths in the past year. In fact, Andy’s seen so many deaths, he’s lost count. Hugely frustrating and upsetting, as virtually all were avoidable.

‘It’s not worth the risk’ will feature safety roadshows and crash scenarios at fire stations and other venues over the next few weeks.

Temporary signs will be appearing throughout the county, reminding drivers of the fatal four.

Andy and his team will be focussing on prevention, promoting safe alternatives for drivers who rely on their phones. This includes, diverting calls to the messenger service, having a no calls rule when driving, and pulling over when safe to do so, but not on the motorway hard-shoulder. Making the glove compartment the phone compartment is another way to avoid being tempted and distracted.

The faster someone drives, the less time they have to stop when the unexpected happens. Research shows that for every mile-per-hour increase in speed, there is a three percent increase in risk of road traffic collision.

Many crashes happen because the driver loses control, particularly on bends or in wet or ice conditions. Drive for the road conditions and give time to react by reducing speed is Andy’s message. The difference of a few miles per hour could mean the difference between life and death.

Drinking alcohol and driving puts all road users in danger. The only safe option is not to drink any alcohol. It’s not worth the risk, and there are always safe alternatives such as taking a taxi, bus or train; designating a ‘dry’ driver, walking home or deciding to stay overnight.

Andy says: “Oxfordshire has more rural roads than most counties. And Oxford city centre more cyclists per head of population than most other towns and cities. This means drivers must be alert, drive sensibly, safely and share the risk, from the moment they turn the ignition key.

“If you cause a collision, it can result in life-changing injuries to you, or to anyone else involved. You will also carry the terrible guilt, and for what? For the sake of a lunchtime drink, a phone-call, or saving a bit of time?

“Trees, hedges; these are my memorable landmarks, because I connect them to road traffic collisions.

“We live in a beautiful county. There are so many iconic buildings and views. But if you’re careless or complacent behind the wheel, you might never see them again. Your passengers might not either. Whether as a car driver, a pedestrian, cyclist or motorbike rider; we all use and share the roads.

“Don’t leave me and colleagues in the emergency services with a memory we don’t want, but one we’ll never forget.

“Please, ‘it’s not worth the risk’. Drive safety and responsibly.”

For further information about the Fatal Four and how to drive safely, visit the website: www.365alive.co.uk/fatalfour