When James Parker steps down as the London Road Safety Council’s executive officer in July and gallops off into retirement, it will bring down the curtain on a career in road safety spanning four decades.
Anyone who knows James will know his love for horses and it was this passion that ultimately led him to join the Royal Borough of Kingston in 1982 in a road safety education capacity.
James explains: “Although my previous full-time role was within the Trading Standards department, I worked at the weekends as a horse-riding instructor.
“It had been my ambition to work full-time with horses but it is notoriously difficult to make a decent living and so my father had encouraged me to pursue a career in local government.
“The experience I had as a riding instructor gave me the confidence to apply for the post at Kingston, plus of course, the chance to influence the safety of the lives of road users was of great appeal.”
It didn’t take James long to realise the importance of the work carried out by road safety professionals.
When asked to recall his first day, he said: “I remember how friendly and welcoming the team were. In time I came to realise this is a hallmark of everyone who works in the road safety profession.
“I recall I attended a cycling proficiency lesson in Surbiton that was being run for youngsters who lived in a children’s home. I also had to plot pins onto the borough’s road casualty map. Yellow for a slight injury, blue for serious, and red for a fatality.
“This really brought into focus the importance of the work we do.”
Learning the hard way
In 1990, James was promoted to a road safety officer at Kingston, a role he had been keen to take up.
However, it was not all plain sailing. James says he learnt lessons in this role that stood him in good stead for the rest of his career, particularly when it came to building a good team around him.
He said: “Having anticipated this role keenly, I actually remember some bad things. I made poor recruitment decisions initially and this made life difficult.
“But when I look back over my whole career, one of my strengths became that I made great recruitment decisions. In the years 2000-2010, I had the best road safety team in London, we succeeded in driving down casualties and won so many awards; this was all down to the team I had created.
“This is also something I have managed to do with much success within the London Road Safety Council. So, sometimes you have to learn the hard way.”
It was at this time when James started to expand his work outside of the borough, including his first affiliation with the London Road Safety Council.
He served as the honorary secretary of the Institute of Road Safety Officers’ (IRSO) London area group from 1995-1999, before spending three years as honorary secretary of IRSO.
He also began representing Road Safety GB as an equestrian advisor in 1990 – a position held until 2010.
James explained: “I especially enjoyed the opportunity to work with colleagues in other boroughs, and took on various honorary roles in time, including becoming the national adviser for equestrian road safety, which allowed me to work closely with the British Horse Society. I also supported the then Institute of Road Safety Officers, eventually as national secretary.”
As for the London Road Safety Council, what were his early thoughts and memories?
“The London Road Safety Council had coordinated some good campaigns that benefited the boroughs, and I remember writing to the executive to suggest they campaigned to make P-plates mandatory. I had to attend the executive to present the case, but it was felt not to be a priority at the time.
“Regarding the quarterly meetings, I remember that they were really just a talking shop. A common theme was ‘cycling on pavements’. In truth, I felt it was an organisation that had so much potential given the composition of the membership, but that its value fell somewhat short at that time.”
James has already expressed how proud he is of his tenure as road safety officer at Kingston, working to build the Capital’s best road safety team in the early noughties.
There was also personal acclaim. In 2002, he was awarded the British Horse Society’s Sefton Award for services to equestrian road safety.
Meanwhile in 2005, he worked with TfL to get the world record for the biggest walking bus.
Other career highlights include bringing the Junior Road Safety Officer (JRSO) scheme to London and piloting adult cycle training in the Capital.
However, in 2010, family tragedy saw him leave the council and take a career break.
He explains: “My career was really taking off and I had a team of around 40 people. As well as road safety, we covered sustainable travel, energy strategy, climate change issues and wider environmental matters.
“However, my life was quite unseated when my wife died suddenly and unexpectedly.
“Although I was overwhelmed by the love and support of my colleagues and the wider road safety community, it was a hard time, and finding myself the sole parent of youngsters who were struggling with the loss of their mother, I decided to take a career break.
“I continued my voluntary roles as a British Horse Society riding and road safety examiner and exams moderator, and it was through a contact here that I found myself becoming a carriage driver at Hampton Court Palace.
“At last, I was working with horses, and I thoroughly enjoyed driving the two huge Shires, Aragon and Royale, as they pulled a 40-seater tram and we gave guided tours of the Palace.”
Joining the London Road Safety Council
In 2011, James decided it was time to return to road safety and joined the London Road Safety Council.
He said: “I remember talking to Sam Merison, who had been one of my great recruitment decisions (now a manager at Richmond and Wandsworth).
“Although I was enjoying the carriage driving, I knew I needed a new challenge and my pull was back into the road safety arena. He told me that the London Road Safety Council was looking for a new part-time administrator.”
James has worked with the London Road Safety Council since then, most recently as its executive officer.
In that time there have been many highlights.
“The biggest highlight has been to work with such a fine team of people who share a common goal,” he said.
“There is a huge amount of goodwill for the London Road Safety Council and we have delivered, especially in recent years, some great social media campaigns.
“There was also a wonderful conference we held to commemorate our centenary, held at the prestigious City of London Corporation Guildhall. We are so fortunate in having the Lord Mayor as our patron.
And also a few challenges…
“In the early days I made it a challenge to revitalise the membership and the ground we cover,” James said.
“This may sound a little harsh, but there are numerous road safety groups but only ours has the bespoke mix of officers, elected members and other road safety professionals.
“With reducing staff numbers in local authorities, the value and effect of the London Road Safety Council needed to be greater and I believe we can now record that it is now better fulfilling this role.”
Overcoming these challenges has left James feeling an immense sense of pride when it comes to the position the London Road Safety Council currently finds itself in.
He said: “In having drawn in the right people, I have helped to make the organisation more robust and influential. This is evidenced by the fact that many of our current elected members hold a portfolio for road safety/environment.
“Our president, professor Nicola Christie, has enthused the membership and helped us to identify key areas of concern that have now been adopted as target areas in Transport for London’s Vision Zero strategy.
“Also, the programme of on-line information sessions we hold every month is another measurable success; they cascade ideas and information through the membership to their local authorities.”
Reflection – and what comes next?
A lot has changed over the last 40 years – and road safety is no exception.
When asked what the biggest challenges facing the profession are, James is concerned about how the number of road safety officers is declining.
“I am seriously concerned by the reduction in staffing and many of those who have responsibility for road safety now also have wider responsibilities for a broader area of work.
“This can dilute the road safety effort, and that is why there remains an even greater purpose for the London Road Safety Council to work on their behalf to coordinate specific road safety outputs, be they in professional training, lobbying for change or public-facing campaigns.”
As for himself, James says he will be following the work of the council once he’s made a move to more rural surroundings.
He concluded by saying: “The past six months have been turbulent for me with various personal challenges.
“I feel that the London Road Safety Council is in a good place for someone else to take up the reins and I look forward to observing its continued success from a rural idyll.
“The council has at its core a devoted and hardworking team of officers and executive committee members.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed working with them and know that the organisation will continue to make a difference to the safety and well-being of all who use the roads in Greater London.”
22 June 2022