I have tweeted about the current campaign by the FIA (the international motorists’ organisation) using Formula One racing drivers to tell children to wear hi-viz clothing when walking. It’s had a lot of re-tweeting and comments, not least directed at practitioners with a road safety remit . For some of us, this is just a matter of sighing that “you couldn’t make it up”. Others have argued that there is no evidence that campaigns like this will actually protect children. For many this is just a seasonal irritation – or even a partially useful intervention – to be accepted while we try to get on with the business of real road safety – reducing danger at source.
But we believe that this kind of intervention tells us a lot about what is going wrong – and what needs to change – if we are to have a civilised approach to road safety.
Formula One racer Jenson Button
The politics of what I have called “the conspicuity con” is dealt with in Chapter 9 of my “Death on the Streets: cars and the mythology of road safety” (1992) . (Downloadable here/)
Here I discuss how this kind of “road safety” initiative is not just without an evidence base, but actually becomes part of the problem it is supposed to deal with.
Mikael Colville-Andersen gives an interesting account of how “road safety” personnel push hi-viz in his son’s school. Mikael rightly reports the lack of evidence to show actual reductions in casualty rates as a result of this kind of programme. There is one rather ropey Norwegian study referred to, but even the UK Department of Transport has indicated that there is a lack of evidence to justify hi-viz for cyclists. Mikael states – correctly – that people genuinely concerned with safety on the road should deal with what he calls “the bull in the china shop“, namely danger from motorised traffic, which they don’t.
But it is worse than that. I would argue that a key reason why motorists feel they can get away with bad driving is the “Sorry Mate I Didn’t See You” (SMIDSY) excuse. (See the CyclingUK campaign against SMIDSY).And this excuse is facilitated by precisely the kind of campaigns which put the onus of responsibility to “Be Seen” on the least dangerous to others, rather than requiring those who are dangerous to others to watch out for their potential victims.
The most basic rule of safe driving, in the Highway Code and elsewhere, is to “Never drive in such a way that you cannot stop within visible distance“. But this is eroded, not just by failure to have proper speed limits and ensure compliance with them, but by the assumption that if motorists don’t “see” their victims, it is the victims’ fault. Whether by lengthening sight lines or other measures, the underlying belief system thrusts the onus of risk on to motorists’ actual or potential victims. It is not just a lack of speed control, or the failure to weed out motorists who can’t see where they are going. It is a general culture – promoted by the “road safety” industry – that you don’t have to fulfil a responsibility to properly watch out for those you may hurt or kill.
Looking, watching out – and then seeing
I emphasise “watching out for” because what is required is a thorough process where drivers consider the possible future positions of those they may drive into, think about their need to avoid doing so, and drive accordingly. The image of a pedestrian or cyclist on the retina of the driver is just the first part of this process. And the key element is searching – watching out or looking out – for these people in the first place. It is an active process which is far more effective than any amount of hi-viz, which may be irrelevant anyway. I am regularly told by motorists that they see plenty of cyclists without lights at night. Indeed: if they are driving properly (albeit in an urban area with street lighting) they will indeed see unlit cyclists.
Let me be quite clear about this. My argument is not just that this is rather unsavoury victim-blaming and morally objectionable. It is that it exacerbates the very problem it claims to address. In ten years or so these young people may become drivers, with the expectation that others should shoulder the responsibility that they as drivers have.
The official “road safety” response to this criticism is to avoid it. The typical answer is this: “Of course, motorists should watch where they are going, and we may have an advertising campaign to politely ask them to do so, but in the meantime wear hi-viz”. The problem with this is twofold: firstly, this “in the meantime” has been going on for over a century of motorists endangering, hurting and killing others, and that polite requests aren’t going to change anything. But the second point is the more important: the relentless shifting of responsibility away from those endangering others becomes part of the problem.
Why not use Formula One racing drivers positively?
There is a sense in which Formula One drivers could be usefully put to work for a safer road environment. They are role models for young men who are already driving, and a message could be got across that fast driving should be left for the race track. Simple messages such as “Don’t break the speed limit on the road – it’s there for a reason” could be widely disseminated at race meetings. The basic rule about never driving in such a way that you can’t stop within visible distance could be pushed. If there is to be a focus on children’s safety, the Formula One stars could visit schools and talk to the parents driving children to school.
In fact, there are quite a few ways in which these drivers could be used to address the problems of inappropriate driving. I understand that very often they are prepared to engage in campaigns without demanding fees. But in a crucial sense that is not the point. We have to ask: What is actually going on here?
The significance of these campaigns
The task of the road danger reduction movement includes deconstructing the basic cultural assumptions which most of us unwittingly accept. I argue that using people who are role models is an important way in which basic – often negative and dangerous – ideas are subtly inculcated into young minds. It is worth repeating that the young people being targeted will gradually come to assume that it is the task of people outside cars to “be seen”, whether or not drivers are capable of, willing to and actually looking where they are going and watching out for other road users.
This is not a conspiracy theory – it’s actually a sociological analysis (the opposite of such ways of looking at social phenomena). Although we might argue for the Formula One drivers to be used, for example, to challenge the overly fast driving of young motorists, that is only one aspect of this issue. We also need to analyse the widely held beliefs (including our own) which constitute the background assumptions about safety, and challenge them when necessary. None of this means that pedestrians and cyclists should wear camouflage. But we do need to critically consider the often unspoken beliefs which our society has, and challenge them where necessary.
The problem of cyclist warning stickers started in London (for the last account of what this issue is all about, with reference to the time line see this post ). While there are more important issues to be dealt with in the area of lorry safety as described here , sometimes relatively minor issues may well still need to be addressed.
This photograph of a vehicle on Salisbury Plain (HT Martin Baldwin) got me thinking: what exactly is a “blind spot”? The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary says:“an area where vision or understanding is lacking”
As followers of this saga will know, for the vehicle above, there is no lacking of “vision” if the driver is using their near side wing mirror as instructed by the Highway Code. What is lacking is the “understanding” that they have this obligation.
Our objective, along with other road danger reduction and cyclist stakeholders is that Transport for London, other highway authorities, bodies like CLOCS and operators , the Fleet Operators Recognition Scheme (FORS), drivers and police understand what needs to be done in order to reduce lorry danger. Achieving this objective may well involve chasing up bodies like FORS (that have clear criteria of which vehicles can have stickers on them) even if it is low on the list of priorities.
Perhaps it is the case that addressing the relatively minor issues can lead to more commitment towards resolving the main ones.
In the transport practitioner’s fortnightly journal Local Transport Today (Viewpoint, LTT 704), Professor Richard Allsopp – a key figure in Britain’s “road safety” establishment – made a critique of the “Vision Zero” movement. While we have some issues with the Vision Zero approach, we find it necessary to criticise Professor Allsopp’s article, featuring as it does some key features of “road safety” ideology. Here is our response as printed in Local Transport Today 705:-
“Richard Allsop is of course correct to state that: “people accept risk in return for what they see themselves as gaining from the activity” (ibid). The point – which is entirely absent from his article – is that some road users take risks at the expense of others. Broadly speaking, motorised road users impose danger on all other road users, whereas walkers and cyclists impose far less. Moreover, the non-motorised users suffer disproportionately from the risk imposed by the motorised.
To give an example, people who go mountain biking accept a degree of risk, because it is an enjoyable activity. However, the difference between mountain biking and on-road cycling really matters. The risks one accepts when mountain biking are entirely voluntary, whereas the risks one faces when cycling on the roads are largely imposed by others. In addition, the cyclist does not reciprocate by imposing an equivalent level of risk on the motorised.
This question – the Who Kills (or injures or endangers) Whom question – is ignored not just in Richard’s article but throughout official “road safety” ideology and practice. This leads to incorrect and misleading measures of safety (see my Viewpoint in LTT 635 15 Nov 2013), which hide the difference between harming oneself and harming others. It is both immoral and – because it compares unlike categories as if they were equal – unscientific.
Unlike this traditional “road safety” approach, Road Danger Reduction (RDR) addresses the issue of reducing danger at source , that is to say the (ab)use of motor vehicles, as the civilised way of making roads safer for all. Vision Zero has been promoted in the UK (unlike in Sweden) on a RDR basis, and as such we will support the measures it advocates.
And it is the measures taken that count. The Safe System approach Richard refers to includes “recognising the fallibility and frailty of road users and that collisions will continue to happen” – but how has that been put into practice? I argue that accommodating rule- and law-breaking behaviour by the motorised through highway engineering (felling roadside trees, laying anti-skid, erecting crash barriers etc.) and vehicle engineering (seat belts, crumple zones, side impact protection systems etc.) has exacerbated it.
Idiot-proofing the environment for the motorised has become part of the problem. Measures of this kind have shifted risk from those creating it onto those outside motor vehicles. When, as Richard notes, the Safe System approach “make(s) designers and users responsible jointly for the safety in the road system and its use” is that supposed to include “designers” making “users” less responsible?
Furthermore, the measures that “we” have taken include spontaneous adaptation by parents, who deny their children independent mobility, and by those willing but scared to take up cycling. In our view that should not be seen as progress, but the opposite.
Finally, I am intrigued by the chart comparing risk of death per hour spent using the roads versus “corresponding risk in the rest of everyday life”. Do these latter risks include those from: physical inactivity from using motorised transport instead of walking or cycling; noxious emissions; greenhouse gas emissions; allocation of funding to road building which could be diverted to health care? Again, we are discussing risks generated by motorised vehicle users that society in general suffers from. It may be the case that the Safe System approach aims to “align road safety management with wider economic, human and environmental goals” but in the RDR movement we would argue that “road safety” is aligned with a car-dependent outlook, and against the right kind of goals for transport policy.”
Dr Robert Davis, Chair, Road Danger Reduction Forum
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.