So far this week there have been three serious crashes in Edinburgh (and it is only Friday) which is not good news. Then on seeing a tweet this morning my heart sank further. The tweet spoke of influencing “culture change and mutual understanding on our shared road network”. For many who have been campaigning for years to make the roads safer for people to cycle, walk or wheel, this feels like Ground Hog Day. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the person who wrote it. It is someone I know and respect. It is the comment that “We have to work together to influence culture change and mutual understanding on our shared road network” that makes me feel depressed.
We have been here before. This is nothing new, every time there is a spike in road deaths we hear the same mutual respect concept rolled out. As Albert Einstein is supposed to have said (and probably didn’t), “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result“. We know there is a fatal flaw in the “mutual respect” approach to road safety. It assumes that all road users are equally capable of harming each other and therefore equally culpable when/if things go wrong. This is simply not true. Until we ditch this flawed concept, we will be unable to move on, stuck in an insane loop, a deathly Ground Hog Day.
The question now is: how do we break out of this cycle of insanity? The answer is simple, we look for evidence of what works, and learn from that. But before we go further, it is worth just looking to see where the mutual respect/share the road concept came from. It has its origins in 1930’s America where it was invented by the Shell oil company and adopted wholesale by the motor industry. It is still promoted by the Ford Motor Company as a way of getting non-motorised road users off the roads to make way for cars and also to transfer blame to the victims when things go wrong. Therefore, is it any wonder that it has failed? OK, so what else is out there?
Back at the start of the Millennium when all was hope and optimism, the concept of Vision Zero became popular across the world. The idea of Vision Zero started in Sweden and was approved by their parliament in October 1997. The aim was to use road engineering to reduce the number of people killed and seriously injured (KSI) to Zero by 2020. Are they there yet? No, the rate of KSIs in Sweden stopped declining in 2013, and the target date moved to 2030.
The UK has talked about developing a Vision Zero strategy but has never actually implemented anything across the country. This is partly as transport is a devolved issue, and indeed Scotland did have a Vision Zero policy, too, but this was quietly dropped some years ago and has disappeared from sight. The main reason the UK does not have a fully developed Vision Zero strategy is because the government claims to have a low rate of KSI per 100k people. However, this is deeply disingenuous, as the UK also has very low levels of walking and cycling (along with the highest obesity rates in Europe). When the KSI rate per distance walked or cycled is examined, it turns out the UK’s rates of KSIs are among the highest in Europe.
Given that there is a desire to increase rates of active travel, where should we look for an example of how to get it right? The country which has probably been most successful at this is the Netherlands, with their strategy of Sustainable Safety (or “Duurzaam veilig” if you want it in Dutch). Where Duurzaam veilig differs from Vision Zero is that it recognises that in the majority of collision humans are to blame and that roads should be designed to be “self-explaining”, thus reducing the likelihood of crashes in the first place. Sustainable Safety also acknowledges that collisions will happen and therefore, when the inevitable does occur, it should be survivable. This approach has been shown to work, the Netherlands are probably the safest place in the world to walk or cycle. There is no point in trying to reinvent the wheel when it already exists. The intelligent approach is to learn from the concept and adapt it to your needs. Got rough roads to travel over? Add a more cushioning tyre, but don’t be tempted to make the wheel square.
Therefore, I suggest, if we wish to escape the deathly Ground Hog Day described above, now is the time to abandon the “mutual respect” concept and embrace Sustainable Safety. Can it be done? Well maybe if someone with a background in psychology, a persuasive nature and access to people at the highest level, were to get the Scottish Government to change its approach. Then we could have a chance to break out of this cycle of insanity.