Horizon's "Surviving a Car Crash": does the BBC connive with violence?

My answer to this question is: Yes. If you want to see how the BBC displays the worst of “road safety” culture, look at this programme broadcast on February 9th 2011: (If you want to protect your screen, watch with no heavy objects to hand).

What makes this connivance even worse is that it occurs in the name of safety and “saving lives”. If you are unfamiliar with the principles of Road Danger Reduction, let’s start off by defining some basic terms:
Violence:The expression of physical force against one or more people, compelling action against one’s will on pain of being hurt
Or: “1. The exercise or an instance of physical force, usually effecting or intended to effect injuries, destruction etc. 2. Powerful, untamed or devastating force … 4. An unjust, unwarranted or unlawful display of force.” (The first is Wikipedia’s definition, the second Collins: some definitions refer to intention, but many do not include it as a necessary part of the definition).

With car crashes we are generally talking about rule or law-breaking activity by drivers. Others may be implicated, such as vehicle manufacturers, highway engineers, and transport policies encouraging and facilitating motor vehicular transport. Whatever the level of intention, there is violence which some or more of these people are responsible for.

This is particularly so for people outside the cars actually or likely to crash: pedestrians and cyclist, and also those in the less crashworthy vehicles which may be hit by the crashing car. At no point in the programme is reference made to these human beings.

Connive: To give assent or encouragement (to the commission of a wrong) (Collins) ; To pretend ignorance of or fail to take action against something one ought to oppose (Merriam-Webster). Let’s be clear about the meaning of the interventions implicitly or otherwise supported by the Horizon programme. Connivance is actually the best way of describing acceptance of violence as given.

But it gets worse. We have known for decades that idiot-proofing motorists – whether by changes in the vehicular environment such as described in the programme, or in the highway environment – produces idiots. Or to be more precise: drivers adapt to changes in their perceptions of risk by being les careful, “safety benefits are consumed as performance benefits”. Whatever way you express it, a mountain of evidence suggests that the measures sympathised with in the programme are likely to increase risk for those outside the cars.

What is portrayed in this programme not only completely neglects the evidence on short-term risk compensation (what we have seen with seat belts etc.) but the longer-term cultural effects. In developing countries with the vast majority of road users being outside cars, particularly as pedestrians, this is especially dangerous.

None of this means that we are against the safety of car occupants – quite the contrary. Safety for car occupants should be achieved by the same means as for all other road users – by reducing danger at source. This means controlling the potential of drivers to hurt or kill. This can be achieved in a number of ways:

It can occur through obeying the regulations and laws and having them enforced with deterrent sentencing. It can be engineered in cars and on the highway through reducing the speed and other elements of violence. To give one example of the beneficial use of the hi-tech engineering referred to throughout the programme: on-board black boxes in vehicles which can specify driver actions leading up to a crash. We have pointed out for years that this kind of device would assist successful attribution of responsibility for collisions, assist successful prosecutions, protect potential victims and also reduce insurance costs for those motorists using them.

Achieving reduction of danger at source, does, of course, require a culture which finds behaviour which endangers others unacceptable. All of this is militated against by the kind of approach displayed in the Horizon programme. “Top Gear” is just the iceberg tip of what’s wrong with car culture. (Can you imagine, in a risk obsessed culture like ours, Top Gear being so easily tolerated if we had the kind of cars and roads we had in the 1960s?). If you want to complain, go here