We All Get Bad Days – the productive life of Valerie Storie

by Dr Nina Baker

Did you have a close call today when a truck nearly caused an accident on the motorway? Or perhaps you are a female driver, and a male driver overtook you, putting you in a riskier position on the road, so perhaps you think male drivers should pay higher insurance premiums? Did those incidents somewhat sour your day?

Valerie Storie knew all about these sorts of incidents and why they happen. She was a scientific civil servant at the government’s Transport and Road Research Laboratory (TRRL) from the time she left school in 1955, at the age of 16, until she retired 28 years later. For over 20 of those years she was a paraplegic wheelchair user and sole breadwinner for herself and her ailing parents. With (apparently) no formal post-school education she became a recognised authority on road traffic accidents, through her work at the TRRL. Her specialism was not anything to do with disabled access though, it was all to do with how and why ‘accidents’ happen. She wrote or co-authored 6 major pieces of published work in that time, although it is likely that there were other pieces of research at the TRRL, for commercial companies, which would not have been published.

Valerie Storie by Howard Barlow

Storie’s work was with the very well-known Dr Barbara Sabey, who was the head of the TRRL’s road safety group. She and Sabey published a report on ‘ Skidding in personal-injury accidents’, in 1968, and with another group member, G.C. Saughton, she co-authored reports on their methodology for in-depth accident investigations, in 1977. Storie’s first sole author report was on the role of alcohol and human factors in road accidents (1975) which would have contributed to Sabey’s long-running road safety work. Storie analysed police on-site reports and personal interviews and concluded that, although there were environmental contributions to the accidents, the human factors of alcohol, fatigue or illness were contributory to 95% of accidents.

Plate 1 from Staughton and Storie on ‘Methodology of an in-depth accident investigation survey’, 1977

As for whether men or women are the safer drivers, much of Storie’s research has taken a long time to be accepted by the male-majority transport, insurance, police and legislation worlds (even more misogynist in her own day). She noted in 1977 that, from analysing 2036 accidents, “The female driver tended to make errors of a perceptual nature by becoming distracted and not seeing hazards… [and] …. the male driver was more likely to be impaired through alcohol, tended to drive too fast for the conditions and more readily took risks.”

Her final report before retiring was on the involvement of HGVs in nearly a thousand motorway accidents. Obvious dangers like veering into the crash barriers, effects of bad weather, etc were found but she also concluded that “a driver’s state of mind and whether fatigued prior to the accident suggests that ways to combat boredom and keep drivers alert would make a significant contribution to safer motorway driving.” We understand this well now but it took science like hers to back up the general impression that fatigue mattered.

After retiring from the TRRL, Storie remained as active as her disability would permit, even after losing the ability to drive herself in her adapted car. She was secretary and newsletter editor for her former school’s Old Paludrians’ Association, attending its reunions for many years, and was also active in her local Women’s Institute, as well as helping to organise transport for local disabled people – a service on which she also came to depend.

Valerie Storie in later life (photo from FindAGrave.com)

That wheelchair? That was the outcome of the worst imaginable day of anyone’s life, which would have led many of us to a house-bound life of mental ill-health. If her name seems familiar (to those of a ‘certain age’), it is not surprising: she was the surviving victim of one of the last men to be hanged in the UK, James Hanratty, who murdered her lover, then raped her and shot her multiple times, in 1962.

Valerie Jean Storie (1938-2016) was a woman of such determination to be useful as would stand as a fine example to us all. She certainly did not let the “A6 Murder” define her life, despite the obvious fact that she was reminded of it “with every breath”, but took the view that:

“We all get bad days, but you get over it and get on.”


Recommended Reading & Sources:

As you might imagine there are masses of articles online and in the print media of the time about Storie’s involvement in the A6 Murder and far fewer about the other parts of her life.

Obituary: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2016/05/13/valerie-storie–obituary/ 

Also: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/192778021/valerie-jean-storie/photo 

The Old Paludrians newsletters have frequent mentions of her:  https://oldpaludians.org/opar2010/ 

The controversy of the Hanratty case was laid to rest in 2002: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Hanratty#DNA_evidence_and_appeal_in_2002 

Her boss, Barbara Sabey: https://www.magnificentwomen.co.uk/engineer-of-the-week/16-dr-barbara-sabey 

Her reports on road safety are mostly unavailable to download but are:

1968 Skidding in personal-injury accidents in Great Britain in 1965 and 1966. Barbara E Sabey; Valerie J Storie. RRL report, 173. 

1975 The Role Of Alcohol And Human Factors In Road Accidents. Storie, V J, paper presented to Fifth International Conference of the International Association for Accident and Traffic Medicine, London; also at the 3rd International Conference on Drug abuse of the International Council of Alcohol and Addiction, London, 1-5 September, 1975. 

1977 Male and female car drivers : differences observed in accidents. Valerie J Storie. TRRL laboratory report, 761

1977 An in-depth accident investigation survey: data collection system. G C Staughton; Valerie J Storie.  TRRL, 1977.

1977 Methodology of an in-depth accident investigation survey. G C Staughton; Valerie J Storie. TRRL report. Transport and Road Research Laboratory 762 

1984 Involvement of goods vehicles and public service vehicles in motorway accidents. Valerie J Storie; TRRL laboratory report 1113. 


About the Author:

Contact:

Dr Nina Baker has had a varied career, having become a Merchant Navy deck officer on leaving school and later taken an engineering design degree in her 30s, from the University of Warwick. She then gained a PhD in concrete durability from the University of Liverpool. She has lived with her family in Glasgow since 1989, working variously as a materials lecturer in further education and as a research administrator and, until 2017, as an elected city councillor. Now retired from all that, her interest in promoting STEM careers for girls has led her to become an independent scholar, specialising in the history of women in engineering. She is the volunteer historian for the Women’s Engineering Society

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