How safe are Britain’s roads (Part 2)?

In answer to one of the programme’s opening questions, of course UK accident rates are unacceptable, but in misidentifying driver error as the primary cause, it wasted an hour of precious airtime in simplistic wisdom. “So if we are the problem,” asked Justin Rowlatt, scurrying off on a false assumption, “is technology the answer?” No. Until you address the root cause – the priority system which makes roads dangerous in the first place –  you’re wasting time, and reinforcing a defective system. The purveyors of technology, beloved of this programme, now want to mitigate manufactured danger by automating driving and removing the human element, ironically our greatest resource.

The programme kicked off by looking at the illegal use of mobile phones. If mobiles are banned because they take our eyes off the road, should traffic lights, speed cameras and speed limits be banned for the same reason? The programme didn’t ask. It showed the police spying on drivers from unmarked trucks, and nabbing anyone using a mobile, while ignoring middle-lane blockers who waste half our motorway capacity and indirectly cause pile-ups.

Used in accident investigations, STATS19 is a 6-point checklist for factors contributing to accidents. These include poor road surfaces and mobile phone use. The most common factor is “failed to look properly”. Still no word about priority, the root cause of dangerous conflict.

They revisited the subject of reckless young male drivers. Graduated licences favoured by the ABI aren’t a bad idea, but wouldn’t it be better to make roads safe in the first place, by designing them for equality and appropriate speed, and phasing in an advanced test (to include virtual and real experience, and cycling proficiency)?

There was an interesting bit about accident responsibility – under-20s are 12 times more likely to be at fault, over-75s seven times more likely. But again they failed to consider the role of priority in setting the stage for dangerous conflict. An 80 year-old driver said he was fine with left-hand turns but feared right-hand ones. He is right to fear them. They are intrinsically dangerous; the right-turner has to contend with more than one source of conflict. The Road Safety Good Practices Guide advises minimising conflict points, but traffic control does the opposite. Ludicrously, before the right-turner is allowed to leave the junction, s/he has to wait for high-speed oncoming traffic to pass. How much safer would it be for everyone to filter in turn at low speeds?

Interestingly, older drivers scored better on an obstacle driving course than younger ones (though the time taken to negotiate obstacles wasn’t taken into account, so the experiment was skewed). It called into question the trend to re-test older drivers, when it would make more sense to strengthen the test for young guns. A related point: good young drivers pay higher insurance premiums to subsidise the bad. As usual, one size does not fit all.

In conclusion, they used the seat-belt myth to justify the choice of human error as the primary cause of accidents. Are we paying enough attention to the problems? they asked. On the strength of this lame analysis, they were paying too much attention to the problems, or rather the symmptoms, and not enough – none – to the underlying cause.

From my point of view, the only positive is that the field remains open for a programme that would expose the flaws in the current system and advance the revolution in theory and practice that is so scandalously overdue.


About Martin Cassini

Campaign founder and video producer, pursuing traffic system reform to make roads safe, civilised and efficient
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