It may seem dim, but turning off our street lights is a bright idea
23:13 GMT, 28 November 2012
Light up: Roads have been necklaced by a string of viciously bright streetlights lately
We live near Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire. It is a classic English market town, church spire pointing to heaven, its pretty collection of historic buildings picturesquely framed by a landscape of wooded hills and ploughed fields.
In the past couple of years, however, something horrid has happened. If you approach Ross down the ancient Ledbury road late on a winter’s afternoon, the bucolic view is now blighted. The town has been necklaced by a string of viciously bright streetlights that have been erected along the dual-carriageway to Monmouth.
One of the most searingly beautiful vistas in The Marches has been carelessly ruined. It now looks like an airport runway — or maybe a prison encampment after the escape of one of the inmates.
Electric lights blaze with bullying insistence. It is as if 21st-century man, chest puffed with self-importance, has decided to impose himself on the natural world.
All it has taken is a link to the electricity supply, a few steel girders and a brutal determination to impose illumination on God’s Earth 24 hours a day. Oh, and the casual connivance of the nation’s planners, too.
With each conquest, each fresh introduction of streetlighting to previously unlit countryside, Britain takes another step to becoming an urbanised wasteland, open 24 hours a day.
Every nook and cranny of our towns and cities already seems to be lit like a Roman candle while the populace are asleep in their beds. And the rash is spreading virtually unchecked.
I thought of our little corner of Herefordshire last week when I read that the Highways Agency was being criticised for switching off streetlights lining our motorways. Motorists, we are told, have been ‘left in the dark’ by the decision to extinguish lighting after midnight on 121 miles.
That figure of 121 miles was naturally doubled to 242 by alarmists, to count the traffic going in both directions.
Shining bright: Every nook and cranny of our towns and cities already seems to be lit like a Roman candle while we sleep in our beds
See what they’ve done there They’ve cranked up the propaganda to make you more concerned. Streetlighting plays on people’s fears. It is as though we are being told, ‘Oooh, nasty darkness, we mustn’t risk that.’ What a shallow world it is that takes this view.
When the Highways Agency story broke, there were blood-curdling predictions that as a result of the modest switch-off, all manner of chaos and destruction would be visited on our highways. A statistic from 1970 was bandied about, to the effect that streetlights reduced accidents by 30 per cent. That Whitehall figure — plucked from the air, it seems — has since been revised to 10 per cent. Well, well. Yet even that figure is dubious, as we shall presently see.
The new Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin pushed his way into the controversy, saying that ‘motorists should not have to squint in the dark’.
Mr McLoughlin is normally the most sensible of Right-wingers, so we must presume that either he has been misquoted or that his officials have already started to neutralise him and turn him into a proponent of bossy, big-spending government.
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For how, in this day and age, when most cars have powerful headlights and fog lights, can it truly be said that drivers have to ‘squint’ when piloting their turbo-charged Audis and Beemers down a motorway Are there not cat’s eyes in the road
Far from being criticised, the Highways Agency (not the sort of outfit I would normally defend) should be heartily congratulated. Britain is not undersupplied when it comes to streetlamps. It is horribly oversupplied — mile upon mile of motorway being needlessly lit up like Santa’s grotto.
This plague of phosphorescence, this gaudy rash of gleaming dazzlement is something to be resisted and repelled. It denaturalises us, it exhausts us — robbing us of the proper rhythms of dusk and dawn. It besmirches our country and it cedes power to the have-it-now, have-it incessantly brigade.
Streetlights also cost a fortune, both in energy bills and their initial acquisition and siting. ‘Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord,’ runs a famous Anglican prayer. It is a line taken up with extravagant fervour by unelected county-council officials.
In February 2010 for instance, a stonking 620 million of PFI (private finance initiative) cash was devoted to new streetlight installations to jazz up the evening hours. As you may know, PFI involves complicated and pricey debt instruments, which effectively force future generations to pay for our public services.
So we are not even paying for our own lighting folly — our children and grandchildren will have to pick up the bill.
Streetlighting adds (if you subscribe
to the notion) to greenhouse gases, which are said to be responsible
for climate change. It also causes light pollution — ie it detracts
from the brilliance of the night sky and its shining stars.
pollution is not just a question of making life easier for astronomers
and young lovers. It confuses wildlife. How can the night owl go about
hunting its supper of rodents if humanity lights up the habitat And
what are we ourselves, as creatures, if we can not see the
constellations of distant planets
Row: New Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin pushed his way into the controversy, saying that motorists should not have to squint in the dark.
Independent figures on the value of streetlighting are hard to find. But in 2007, the American National Co-operative Highway Research Program commissioned a report from Pennsylvania State University which found that far from reducing accident rates, streetlights sometimes caused them. Accident rates actually increased during daylight hours and at busy junctions at night after streetlights were introduced.
Amid all the orange glare of streetlights, motorists perhaps find it harder to notice the headlights of advancing cars. And maybe the streetlighting gives them an unjustified sense of confidence that leads to carelessness.
A New York organisation, the Lighting Research Centre, has noted that proper statistical analysis is limited because in the U.S. only two states (Minnesota and California) have electronic databases that can reliably link streetlights to accident rates. Britain is hardly any better equipped.
So a decent level of scepticism is advisable when considering claims that streetlights are some sort of magic cure for bad driving.
Indeed, is it not more plausible to suggest that people might drive more slowly when there are no lights on a motorway — and that if people drive more slowly, accidents are less likely to be fatal
The AA, never knowingly underquoted, said last week that the Highways Agency’s decision — taken mainly on economic grounds — was part of a ‘worrying’ tendency to reduce the levels of lighting on roads. The AA loves to ‘speak up for the motorist’ but in this case it is questionable just how many road users they were representing. I don’t know when you last used a motorway after midnight — when the lights are turned off — but traffic is not often terribly heavy at that hour.
A little context may be helpful,
too. The 121 miles of road that are no longer lit quite as much are but a
modest fraction of 1,070 miles of motorway in England.
reason for streetlighting, say those who make the lights, is that it
reduces crime. But again, that claim is open to question.
Concerning The AA said last week that the Highways Agency's decision was part of a worrying tendency to reduce the levels of lighting on roads
The CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England) argues that streetlighting, far from deterring crime, may sometimes cause the very opposite.
It cites statistics from Essex County Council that suggest crime falls by as much as 14 per cent when streetlights are dimmed or switched off.
Wokingham Borough Council also found that a reduction in night lighting actually led to a drop in crime.
Thieves are, almost by their very definition, cowardly. They are as scared of the dark as little girls!
There is also a persuasive argument that stark streetlighting throws hard shadows — the brighter the lights, the more strikingly black the nearby unlit spaces seem. This can create useful hiding places for hoodlums.
Light pollution has increased by 26 per cent in England between 1993 and 2000, and has probably gone on rising fast since then. You only have to look out of the window next time you are coming in to land at one of London’s airports at night to see that there are few truly dark places left in southern England.
A pocket here, a pocket there, but the rest of it twinkles like a dowager’s tiara. Let the Highways Agency be Bold Berties and set afresh to their work. Let more lights be switched off, and let us rediscover the beauty of darkness before tomorrow’s dawn.