Road safety and the definition of insanity

Road safety and the definition of insanity

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. yall amatch 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, trendat 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, hayamix 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.

2 thoughts on “Road safety and the definition of insanity

  1. Ultimately, we need to completely change the approach to safety on the roads. Rather than just fiddling at the edges when things go wrong, we need to redesign the way in which the system works. As I say above, humans are fallible and make mistakes. So rather than having a system which is designed with the single purpose of moving motor vehicles as quickly as possible.

    We have a system which allow people to travel, by which ever means they choose, as safely as possible. This will inevitable mean that there are restrictions on forms of transport that are inherently more dangerous, such as motor vehicles, which mean that they use will not be as fast or “convenient” as some users might like. The convenience of the few should not be prioritised over the safety of all, as it is a present.

  2. One way to reduce any delivery of harm is to manage the risk, ultimately with total separation, but in the real world of course, we have the random & unmanaged as the default for the ways we move around.

    It is thus helpful to use the hierarchy of risk management, applied by those who deliver safe operation of railways, oil platforms, flying etc, all with a very different approach to preventing harm to people and property, to the extent well explained by Matthew Syed in his book Black Box Thinking. There has to be clear separation between those who investigate ‘events’ (with published objective reports from which lessons can be learned) and those who manage the operations, with the advice from those independent investigators informing a regulator, with the powers to sanction, or remove licences to operate from the ‘operators’

    Our roads system is so broken that the law actually mandates that the roads authorities (Councils) must both investigate the crashes (with no requirement to publish or employ properly qualified staff) and then using their own investigations, tell themselves what action to take to prevent crashes, on existing roads, in new road schemes, and in material that educates road users to prevent crashes. Talk about marking your own homework!

    That folks is Section 39 Road Traffic Act 1988, and an FoI request will often reveal how badly your local Council is delivering. There could be some tweaking that the devolved parliaments in Wales and Scotland could try for, in the same way that Scotland has retained the 40mph HGV speed limit on single carriageway roads, and Wales has pressed forward with the 20mph default speed limit. Councils might also move to separating the investigation and action, and publishing reports, with a radical move, so far only delivered by the City of London, and London Borough of Lambeth – disbanding their Road Safety Teams, and forming a Road Danger Reduction section.

    Clearly exclusion of motor vehicles with less rigorous control from inner cities might be a way forward – perhaps trams to carry people and freight, eliminating the need for private cars, buses, vans and trucks, with these connecting to the tram in a co-ordinated way (freight deliveries booked slots etc) and the other options of walking, cycling and pedicab/cycle logistics services, for individual, and smaller deliveries

    This fits into that change in thinking , managing-out road hazards – at the top of the hierarchy the ‘BlueZone’ has complete separation but we recognise that this is never totally deliverable in the real world, and the grading runs through having physical intervention (eg barriers that close to prevent a conflicting movement), clear signals (which users are expected to obey), and signs or road markings (requiring a bit more user intelligence) finally the ‘RedZone’ is where PPE is the ‘last line of defence’. From a risk management perspective, the promotion of PPE and its use absolutely shouts that YOU HAVE FAILED to eliminate the hazards and potential for harm on our streets. Just let that sink in

    In the Edinburgh context, locations such as East Preston Street have reported ‘issues’, also, as I understand, do the Mount Vernon cross-roads on Gilmerton Road. Should some left or right turns be blocked, or ‘adjusted’ to remove or reduce the risk of a collision. Kerbs which deflect rogue drivers back into the carriageway are available, and should perhaps replace the crash barriers and pedestrian railings at critical locations. Perhaps a kerb design that delivers the ‘regular’ 6″ height but blocks any driver arrempting to drive up on to a footway, by knocking a (tubeless) tyre off the wheel rim and keeping cars off the footway, as drivers would soon learn how to reverse parallel park properly if it cost them a deflated tyre every time they got it wrong….

    Just one example though, of Edinburgh acting smart & fast, as we pass the 3rd anniversary of the death of Zhi Min Soh, run over by a bus driver who failed to stop (from 20mph?) when she fell off crossing tram tracks in front of the bus. This was a repeat of the 2013 crash in Croydon, where Roger de Klerk was run over by the bus driver following him, also through a right turn crossing tram tracks. Drawing on research from Toronto, and Edinburgh (Chris Oliver -Cycling Surgeon) it was very clear that over 50% of cyclists falls on tram tracks, were the result of their concentration, or route across the rails being influenced by another road user – usually a driver – coming too close. Hence the rapid action to erect ‘Keep your distance’ signs at critical junctions, and brief bus drivers especially about tailgating cyclists when they are crossing tram tracks – I know this happens , as I had a tyre in the slot at Haymarket one day, as I had to slow down to avoid a collision with the bus, overtaking me, as I crossed the tracks.

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