Unlike previous books reviewed on www.rdrf.org.uk , this is by someone who has come from within the transport establishment – currently a Professor of Transport Studies, David Metz was formerly Chief Scientist at the Department for Transport. As such you don’t find the intrinsically anti-establishment views of Christian Wolmar (in an earlier book in the London Publishing Partnership series) , still less the radical critique of mainstream transport thinking made by John Whitelegg .
For example, in discussing “peak car” – and also peak air travel – his approach is based on analysing trends: forecasting what could happen based on where we have been. A more radical approach would start out by asking what we want in the future rather than trying to extrapolate from the past.
But perhaps that is what makes this book valuable. Time and again, Metz shows how, as he puts it: “Conventional transport economics has reached a dead end”. He demonstrates that substantial spend on transport projects should not be increased and that “modelling and forecasting need to be rethought to include both changes in land use and the changes in behaviour that are taking place as we have transitioned from the twentieth century to the twenty first”. If someone with a non-radical approach is arguing that the status quo is a “mess” which has come about “because policy has focused on big construction projects and time saving, instead of the part that people and places play in economic development”, then perhaps we have another powerful argument against that status quo.
But how much will another, albeit well-reasoned, argument that we “cannot build our way out of congestion”, actually help? My view is that there are deep seated ideological and psychological forces at work which need to be addressed. Reason alone may win an argument, but have relatively little effect on what happens in the real world.
However, this book is packed full of sensible points made against the dominant official transport orthodoxy, and is as such required reading for students of transport policy.
For anybody who needs convincing that the official “road safety” establishment is part of the problem of danger on the roads, look no further than SUPPORTING SAFE DRIVING INTO OLD AGE: A National Older Driver Strategy . Allegedly addressing the problems of older drivers, this report – as so much of official “road safety” does routinely – accommodates them to the detriment of their actual or potential victims.More older drivers?
A key assumption of “A National Older Driver Strategy” (I’ll call it NODS) is that there will be far more elderly drivers. While there may indeed be an increase, or even an increase with a sensible transport policy, the kind of numbers discussed are essentially a version of “predict and provide”. Rather than see the current transport mix as problematic, and attempting to change it towards the more sustainable modes, NODS embraces a non-sustainable future where motorisation rules.
According to former transport Minister Lord Whitty (Chairman of the authors, the Road Safety Foundation) “Being able to drive is a key part of maintaining independence, looking after oneself and the personal well-being that keeps older people healthy and fulfilled. Giving up driving can trigger decline, reliance on others and expensive public services.” So never mind walking or cycling, it’s driving that keeps you healthy!
There is a brief mention that older people should have access to alternatives. NODS doesn’t consider that many older people may, unlike the authors of the report, actually prefer to live in a less car-dominated society. But the assumption is that the alternatives would only be taxis. There is one brief reference to public transport (presumably one of those “expensive public services”), and none at all to cycling.
What’s the problem?
There is a reference to walking – but as a problem:
“It would be easy to solve the “older driver problem” by keeping older people off the road and making it far more difficult for them to renew or obtain a licence. However that could not be justified by the limited risk they pose to themselves and others as drivers, and the significant risk they would then run as pedestrians…”
Quite apart from the mealy-mouthed avoidance of tackling dangerous behaviour, here we see a staple of “road safety” ideology. Simply walking about is seen as problematic because of the vulnerability to danger from the motorised. In the ideal world of NODS (and the “road safety” establishment) the aim is to get people coddled into crashworthy cars, and endanger those still left outside them, rather than reduce danger at source and support the healthy and environmentally benign modes. The problem is what happens to you, rather than addressing your responsibility for others’ safety.
The danger of older drivers
This – what happens to older drivers rather than the threat they pose to others – is the phenomenon lying behind this report. Obviously older drivers are frailer and more likely to suffer when crashes occur. But for us the issue is what kind of threat they pose to others. NODS is keen to suggest that there is no special reason to single out older drivers, but looking at the research they quote (p.23) we see that over-70s do 9% of car miles and are involved in 7% (a similar proportion) of pedestrian deaths. Also: “As you get older you are more likely to be at fault after middle age”.
Obviously there are greater dangers from the under-25s, and the older age group should not be singled out as the problem. But that means that the problems of danger from elderly drivers should be addressed as well as other problems, not minimised. There is recognition that there can indeed be greater problems for other road users, with the CEO of the insurance company funding NODS saying: “…it is right to show a greater interest in preventing accidents among the over 75s. This does more than merely protect their safety: it also helps vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists of all ages whom we fear, based on our own claims data, are more likely to be seriously injured by an older driver” (my emphasis).
In addition (under “Is action needed?”), we learn that: “Older drivers have reduced ability to judge and adapt to speed, and to read complex driving situations. Vision, reaction times and skills in executing manoeuvres decline with age”. Also: “As the population ages and the number of people with cognitive impairment increases (the Alzheimer’s Society estimates that more than 850,000 people have dementia diagnoses), the risk to drivers, passengers and other road users is increasing.”
From the above, the Road Danger Reduction movement would argue that there needs to be a realisation that danger from older drivers needs to be tackled, alongside danger from other age groups. But what do we get from NODS? Apart from ignoring the sustainable/healthy transport agenda, we have no real attempt to address the issue.
The one measure we have in place is the laughable self-declaration of fitness drivers make at age 70. This is, of course, hopeless: NODS notes that “Self-declaration of medical conditions has been shown clearly in one study not to be reliable…”. But their answer is to – raise this age to 75! Apart from that, we have the suggestion that older drivers should have taken an eyesight test, and the usual “road safety” demands for more crashworthy vehicles and road environments where signage and junctions are easier to negotiate for people who are less capable of doing so. Other than that we have “driver appraisal” schemes to encourage older drivers to drive properly –voluntarily, of course – more research, and a Minister for older drivers.
I – and by the way, I am 64 – haven’t mentioned the usual solutions that are proposed. Partly this is because even a compulsory re-take of the driving test could just be another pseudo-control of road danger, with drivers behaving properly for 20 minutes before going back to their bad driving.
But in a sense that’s not the point. The point is that the agencies of the “road safety” establishment simply don’t genuinely see danger from motorised road users as a problem in the first place. And that’s why, whether the drivers are young or old, what we get are polite suggestions to drive better, combined with a commitment towards more motorisation. Until we replace “road safety” with road danger reduction – reducing danger at source – that’s what we will continue to get.
I’m aware that there is something of a London-centred bias in our posts. Nevertheless, what Transport for London does is of special interest to transport professionals and campaigners throughout the UK: while it is the Highway Authority for only a small minority of London’s roads, it has massive influence through its funding of Boroughs throughout London. With a dire record of (in)action on sustainable transport in the UK’s central Government, London is often where we have to look for potential progress.
So when TfL has peppered its current strategy “Safe London streets: Our approach” with references to danger reduction, and called its 2016 annual conference on March 4th “Tackling the Sources of Road Danger”, it’s time to take notice. Is TfL really moving from “road safety” towards reducing danger at source?Defining road danger
For those of us in the road danger reduction (RDR) movement, danger on the road comes from the (ab)use of motor vehicles. While there may well be obligations on pedestrians and cyclists, the source of road danger is the breaking of official rules and laws by the motorised. As well as rule/law-breaking, danger from motor traffic can also come from rule-obeying drivers: in case that seems unfair, remember that the official “road safety” industry has accommodated rule/law breaking by drivers through highway engineering (felling roadside trees, installing crash barriers; anti-skid and other highway treatments etc.) and vehicle engineering(crumple zones, roll bars, seat belts, air bags etc.).
In summary: creating “Safer Roads for All” means focusing on what drivers and motorcyclists get up to. The primary focus is protecting their potential victims from rule/law breaking, although there should be allowance for pedestrians and cyclists being able to make mistakes without being punished by injury or death. Necessary measures may involve highway or vehicle engineering, or law enforcement (backed up by education and publicity if necessary). Essentially we require a culture where safety on the road is discussed in terms of intolerance of endangering others, as part of a sustainable transport policy.
TfL’s definition of road danger.
TfL refer to “the five main sources of road danger”.
It is difficult to deny that these are driver behaviours which should be tackled. They are indeed examples of road danger, and tackling them would indeed be tackling danger at source. But, at the risk of appearing nit-picking, it is worth examining these as the specific priorities TfL has set itself. So:
Instead, “failure to comply with the laws of the roads” is restricted to cameras for red light offences, unsafe HGVs, and continuation of Operation Safeway – about which we have voiced our concerns here and in other posts.
Some problems What’s the problem? Measuring danger.
So what stops TfL from going for a full-blown RDR approach? How we actually measure danger is a key difference between Road Danger Reduction and traditional “Road Safety”. So far TfL is still basically restricting itself to working back from collisions. The question of how pedestrians and cyclists may avoid places precisely because of the levels of danger presented there is therefore missed out. We have discussed the need to measure danger differently, and would expect TfL to do more than just monitor KSIs or prosecutions.
To be fair, some TfL officers at the 2016 conference did mention the issue of perception of danger. But while TfL still highlights overall cyclist (and pedestrian) casualties rather than using exposure-based (“rate-based”) measures and targets their approach is fundamentally flawed, as explained here.
Why do casualty numbers change?
At the 2016 annual conference, Ben Plowden of TfL claimed that “we are making huge strides…in reducing casualties”. But we believe that casualty reduction occurs for reasons which are often nothing to do with official “road safety” interventions, a point made by John Adams among others.
For example, in 2014 there were 463 cyclist KSIs in London, and in 2015 385 – a decline by no less than 17%. This could be a temporary glitch with KSIs going up again in 2016, and in terms of a long-term decline this one year comparison may not seem so noteworthy. Nevertheless, there are grounds for speculation on the reasons for this decline – what happened in 2015? It is difficult to see any official intervention as responsible – none of the Cycle Superhighways had been completed, and it is difficult to identify any other change. Again, we have to consider spontaneous behavioural change by road users, not official “road safety” interventions.
A key element of the RDR approach is motor traffic reduction. There are some TfL publications that refer to a forecast (slightly) lower modal share for cars in London, but on the whole we would suggest that TfL is not embarked on such a path. Indeed at the March4th conference there was reference to “not waging war on the motorist”, which is normally code for tolerating or increasing the use of motor vehicles (along with “reconciling different demands” etc.).
Who endangers, hurts or kills whom?
A central element of the RDR project is highlighting the difference between danger to others and being endangered. The traditional “road safety” approach blurs the distinction, whereas we emphasise the point on moral and scientific grounds. As it happens, “Safe London Streets: Our approach” does focus on behaviours endangering others, which we welcome. Nevertheless, this issue could be highlighted more. In particular, more priority should be given to the biggest source of danger – careless driving (“driving without due care and attention”), with raised levels of traffic law enforcement.
“Safe London Streets: Our approach” is a step forward for Transport for London, putting it ahead of previous documents on safety on the road, and certainly ahead of other Highway Authorities. Hopefully this can be progressed into a full-blown Road Danger Reduction approach.
If you’re a regular reader of this site and well versed in the need for a sustainable transport policy based on reducing the car-centred status quo, you won’t necessarily gain much from reading this book. But for most people – and particularly the politicians supposedly representing them – who are not, this book is a timely and concise reminder of the main problems, and what is needed as an alternative.Where John Whitelegg’s “Mobility” is more of an in depth and general critique of the cult of going further and faster for the sake of it, Wolmar’s book focuses on the UK.
Wolmar concisely critiques the road-building dogma of decades of UK transport policy – although, as he puts it, this is more a default position than an actual thought-through policy. He refers to the famous quote by Nicholas Ridley as encapsulating the road building philosophy:
“ The private motorist…wants the chance to live a life that gives him (sic) a new dimension of freedom – freedom to go where he wants, when he wants, and for as long as he wants.”
To which one might add “and how he wants”, but otherwise how much has changed since the 1970s? Wolmar traces problems back to Buchanan in an uncompromising analysis of Traffic in Towns and the doctrine of “predict and provide”.
There is a neat review of technological fixes as supposed solutions to transport problems: Wolmar makes the basic point against technological determinism that :
“The starting point…must be to ask: if technology is the answer, what is the question? What are we trying to achieve? What, therefore, are the major transport problems that technology could and should be addressing?”
Indeed. Information technology can reduce the perceived need to travel to meetings, but encourage it by increasing connectivity.
I have a few differences of opinion with Wolmar. I think cost-benefit analysis is more problematic in the assessment of disbenefits than he suggests, and I think he lets John Prescott off too lightly. And on a minor point, the 1930s cycle tracks on the A4 were not “excellent”. But his main thrust is spot-on: placing the onus on politicians to get it right and concentrate on access rather than mobility:
“Any attempt at transformation needs to start with a recognition of our failings and a willingness to address them, as well as a key cultural change. That is probably the hardest bit.”
Again, indeed. Wolmar urges three principles to take us forward: firstly, we have to state what we think transport policy should be about. Secondly, we require demand management – for him this is essentially road user (motorist) charging and “soft measures. Finally he urges governmental change linking devolution with local governmental financial independence.
Getting across to the general public the idea that transport policy has to be re-framed with a full awareness of the negative effects of mobility for its own sake – and the need to control it – is vital. Wolmar’s book is an excellent start for the general reader – and for politicians who have so far been too scared to face up to their responsibilities in this area.