Last reviewed 19 April 2016

As the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) approaches its centenary, Michael Evans, former chairman of its Safety Education Committee looks back at a hundred years of campaigning.


The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, or RoSPA, is surely one of our national treasures along with the likes of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Although younger than the other three, RoSPA is now fast approaching its 100th anniversary.

Countless adults of a certain age will have fond memories of Tufty, the little squirrel with his safety messages, while many more will still treasure their little green triangular cycling proficiency badges.

Early days

It all began towards the end of 1916. Britain had been at war for some 15 months and there was growing concern about the increase in road accidents due to reduced street lighting. A public meeting was held at London’s Caxton Hall and this led to the formation of the London “Safety First” Council (LSFC).

The Council’s first campaign, to encourage people to walk on the side of the road that faced oncoming traffic, was so successful that within a year the number of pedestrian deaths had fallen by 70%.

The post-war period saw 1.5 million new motorists and in 1920 the Duke of York agreed to become President of the LSFC. Concern about workplace safety issues, had also lead to the formation of the British Industrial “Safety First” Association (BISFA) and it was decided to combine the two organisations to form a new National “Safety First” Association (NSFA) and the Duke became its first Patron in 1923.

Throughout the 1920s, although focus began to expand into industrial areas, such as coal mines, railways and dockyards, work continued on improvements to road safety. In 1924, half a million copies of a Road Users’ Safety Code were published.

The insurance industry refused to co-operate with this on the basis that if the number of road accidents were to be reduced, there would be fewer claims, leading to a reduction in premiums and a consequent shortfall in income for insurers.

The first Highway Code was issued in 1931 following co-operation between NSFA and the Ministry of Transport and in 1932, through links with the Electrical Association for Women, NSFA’s activities were extended into the area of home safety.

Work had also begun to educate children in cycling safety. In 1933, 200,000 children took part in a safety essay competition and in 1936, a Child Safety Section was established to aid education authorities. In 1937, the Association sent eight members to attend the first international safety conference in Holland.

In 1936, after the Duke of York was crowned King George VI, he made it known that he still wished to continue as Patron of the Association and in 1941, he agreed that from henceforth, the Association would become known as RoSPA.

The war years and after

The outbreak of war and the consequent blackout led to an enormous rise in the number of road traffic deaths. There was also a rise in the number of industrial injuries following the influx of new workers into factories.

The Government commissioned RoSPA to provide safety information. A 24% drop in the number of road deaths was attributed to this material. For industry, in 1942 alone, RoSPA produced and distributed 550,000 posters with 62 different safety messages.

Also, in 1942 RoSPA introduced its famous kerb drill: “At the kerb halt. Look right, look left, look right again. If the road is clear, quick march to the other side.” This remained the universal message for children until the advent of the Green Cross Code in 1970.

RoSPA’s Cycling Proficiency Scheme was launched in 1947 and three years later came the first National Children’s Safety Week. In 1958, although cycle training continued to be associated with RoSPA, it was taken over by the government to become the National Cycling Proficiency Scheme.

In 1961, RoSPA launched the Tufty Club. This was an instant success and within a year there were over 60,000 members. By 1972, membership had reached 2 million. Ultimately, there were more than 10,000 affiliated Tufty Clubs.

In 1974, statutory responsibility for road safety, including provision for cycle training, was passed to local authorities. This brought a consequent rise in the number of road safety officers. By now, RoSPA was producing huge numbers of colourful safety posters for children and these were bought in their thousands by local authorities for distribution to schools.

The Society now had a number of different safety divisions that were all supported by large and prestigious advisory committees. The Safety Education Committee for instance, had senior police, ambulance and fire officers, senior civil servants, representatives from teacher unions, members of professional safety organisations, representatives from television and other media, as well as just about anyone else who was thought worthy of making an appropriate contribution to safety education.

By the late 1970s, the significant income generated from sales of educational material had made Safety Education one of RoSPA’s most influential divisions.

A decline in funding

This all changed with the advent of the Thatcher years. Much of the central funding for charitable organisations such as RoSPA was either curtailed or completely withdrawn.

As if this was not enough, local authority spending cuts slashed the budgets of road safety officers and since schools could not afford to purchase resources that had previously been freely available, the market for RoSPA’s safety education material effectively dried up.

Added to that, other providers were now entering the safety education market and the Education Division was having to a fight for its life. The decline in income saw an inevitable slimming down. Support from the other divisions enabled some good work to continue and although much of this was highly regarded, it did not generate much in the way of income.

More recently

Meanwhile, the Society as a whole was far from idle. In 1981, RoSPA had a major influence in the legislation, requiring the compulsory wearing of seat belts and in 1985, it published its guidance for the training of minibus drivers, which in its revised form is still in use today.

On the home front, hundreds of lives have been saved following a 1987 campaign for safer foam furnishings, while in 1991 the completion of a five-year campaign resulted in a mandatory requirement for all domestic appliances to be sold with fitted plugs.

After RoSPA’s President introduced a Bill in the House of Lords, legislation was subsequently introduced banning the use of hand-held mobile phones when driving. These are just a few examples of dozens of successes.

RoSPA today

A major initiative of the slimmed down Educational Division has been its Learning About Safety by Experiencing Risk (LASER) scheme. RoSPA introduced this with government support in 1998. Centres have been established where children experience and learn how to manage risk in highly controlled situations.

Another growing area for RoSPA is its consultancy work for organisations, wishing to encourage children to take part in safe outdoor play.

As RoSPA approaches its 100th birthday, the Society continues to be at the forefront of the safety movement. It is now a much leaner organisation than it once was and in common with most charities, commercial sponsorship has become a way of life. Yet, in spite of this, campaigning remains at the heart of RoSPA and this is an area where the Society has always excelled.