The basic rule of road safety is to watch the road. What do traffic lights and instructional road signs do? Take our eyes off the road.
As currently misconceived, traffic control blocks our primary safety task of watching the road and acting according to context. It seeks to turn us from social beings into robots programmed to obey rules. Professor Frank McKenna once told me that “road-users must learn to conform to a system”. Wouldn’t it be better to devise a system that conforms to human nature? Accidents are blamed on driver error. No. The role of traffic control in contributing to “accidents” has never been studied (who will back a study?).
Most “accidents” are not accidents; they are events contrived by the rules and design of the road.
What do you do if you’re approaching a green light at a legal 30 – or 20 – when a child appears in your path, but an unsighted ten-ton truck is on your tail? It’s that sort of intolerable conflict which is manufactured every day by the anti-social rules of the road. “For threatening my baby, unborn and unnamed, you ain’t worth the blood that runs in your veins!” sings Bob Dylan in Masters of War. The charge could be levelled at policymakers in the traffic arena.
Priority is the cause, the whole cause and nothing but the cause. The cause of what? Our problems on the road, most of which stem from the catastrophic rule of priority. The solution is education not regulation.
Priority imposes unequal rights and responsibilities. It puts us at odds with each other and our surroundings. It makes us fight for gaps and green time. It demands our attention, elevates obedience above judgement, denies choice, outlaws discretion, prevents infinite filtering opportunities and expressions of fellow feeling …
Accidents statistics are spurious because they are compiled in the context of priority. An infinitely safer basis for road-user interaction is equality.
Traffic lights encourage inappropriate, conflicting speeds, as some drivers rush to beat the green while others slow down anticipating a return to red. With self-control, approach speeds are low. My interest in avoiding collision with you mirrors your interest in avoiding collision with me.
So which is safer – automated control based on priority, or self-control based on equality?
The following quote is from a Brake! press release of 14 March 2014: Road crashes are not accidents; the use of the term ‘accident’ undermines work to reduce road risk and causes insult to families whose lives have been torn apart by drivers taking risks on roads.
Of course I share the sentiment and the anger, but Brake! misses the point. We’re all victims of a dysfunctional system. Until the underlying cause of danger is addressed – the lethal, unequal priority rule – everything else is retrospective, pointless window-dressing.
It’s not a question of changing psyches. The point is to change the unequal rules of the road: from priority which encourages vehicle domination and licenses neglect, to equality, which allows us to rediscover our humanity and our manners, so we take it in turns.