Engineer of the week No. 16. Today we remember Dr Barbara Sabey, road safety engineer, on the 6th anniversary of her death.
Barbara Ethel Sabey ISO, BSc, PhD (c.1928-24th Feb 2013)
Barbara Sabey was probably the most significant contributor to road safety that you have never heard of. A physics graduate whose initial work was on friction and the interactions between tyres and road surfaces, over a lifetime career at the UK government’s Transport and Roads Research Laboratory and then in private consultancy, she provided the rigorous science and engineering that supported road safety policies we now take for granted. Tyre tread depth rules, obligatory seat belt wearing, alcohol breath tests, road design – all these now-standard preventative measures came from her work.
From 1951 to 2008 she wrote or co-authored about 40 books and reports and a further 45 articles and chapters. Her early work on skidding, road surface and tyre characteristics contributed to British Standards on these issue. She moved on to the analysis of specific accident black spots, roads and entire areas, considering the cost of accidents and how to prevent them, looking at seat belts, lighting, road layouts and drivers’ perceptions of hazards. Sabey then took on the analysis of drink and drugs effects in accidents before having a sabbatical year in 1985 where she repeated many of these studies for the New Zealand government.
Sabey advised numerous UK bodies, such as the Parliamentary Advisory Group on Transport Safety (PACTS), RoSPA, the police and local authorities, as well as international bodies such as OECD members. Her analysis of the pattern of collision occurrence in the 1970s led to the understanding that, in urban areas, road safety engineering at the especially hazardous locations needed to be complemented by other engineering measures to reduce the numbers of more scattered accidents. From this she led the Urban Safety Project of the 1980s, a full-sale trial in which low-cost area-wide measures were developed and their effect assessed, leading to guidelines on Urban Safety Management, the subsequent Safer City Project in Gloucester, and many traffic calming measures we see in the residential areas of our towns and cities.
She received an honorary doctorate from Middlesex University and, in the new year’s honours list of 1983, was awarded the ISO (Imperial Service Order) for her unrivalled contribution to road safety. Personally she was an enthusiastic and successful competitive driver in her Mini Cooper and became the first woman to chair the Civil Service Motoring Association on 27 Feb 1973 at its 50th anniversary dinner. She lived her whole adult life in the Maidenhead area where she died in 2013. Read her obituary here.