Major article on Road Danger Reduction in Local Transport Today

I’m pleased to report that Local Transport Today, the fortnightly journal for transport practitioners, has given us a significant outlet for publicising Road Danger Reduction (RDR) in it’s special supplement “Road Safety: Towards 2020”, out now (LTT570 06 May – 19 May 2011). Below I reproduce the published article of your Chair’s description of RDR- and how it differs from the rest of the contributions in the supplement. The supplement also includes a piece by Norma Fender, the UK’s first Road Danger Reduction Officer, on RDR work at LB Lambeth. Thanks LTT!Road danger reduction

Safer roads: but who for?


Some members of the “road safety” community sometimes align themselves with approaches to reduce danger on the road at source – basically from inappropriate use of motor vehicles. But in various ways the establishment of “road safety” professionals – highway engineers, Road Safety Officers, myriad legal, medical and other professionals – and the ideology they espouse, is very much part of the problem of danger on the road.

Hence the need for the use of inverted commas to describe “road safety”, made because a  civilised approach to danger on the road – road danger reduction (RDR), or “real road safety” – is opposed to  official “road safety” (RS), which

  1. Fails to address, let alone deal with, the problem of danger on the road – particularly for cyclists and pedestrians. Compared to the standards of safety required (albeit it in what we may consider to be an excessively risk averse culture) in maritime, aviation, rail and workplace safety regimes, motorised road users have their danger relatively unchecked.
  2. Frequently exacerbates danger on the road. The history of idiot-proofing the highway and car environment has indeed generated less care, alertness and vigilance on the part of the motorised, if not idiocy.
  3. Pursues victim-blaming of the more vulnerable – and less dangerous to others – road users, as part of an attempt to gloss over the difference between endangering others and being endangered.

All of this is backed up by a pseudo-scientific justification of RS initiatives, clothed in “objective” language, particularly with regard to the confusion between transitive and intransitive meanings of “dangerous”.

Now you know why I don’t get too many invitations to “road safety” conferences.

But RDR does have the support of the main road user groups concerned with the well-being of cyclists and pedestrians (LCC, CTC, Living Streets), 20s Plenty for Us, and the national road crash victims charity, RoadPeace. The Road Danger Reduction Charter has been signed by a number of local authorities.

The RDR programme is backed up by natural justice and common sense. It pushes for more fundamental methods of reducing danger on the road (and making those responsible for it accountable) than the RS lobby. By reducing danger at source we can achieve “Safer Roads for All”. It argues that one of the reasons for the limited success and sometimes beleaguered status of RS initiatives is precisely the history of RS interventions, based on the understanding of how people adapt to changes in perception of risk.

Compensation claims

We all tend to change our behaviour when we feel there is a hazard or threat to avoid it, and we relax or become less vigilant and alert when we feel there is less of a threat.

Central to any version of RC (Risk Compensation – RD) theory, whether in the work of John Adams, Gerard Wilde, or the practice of Hans Monderman and others, is that safety benefits tend to be absorbed as performance benefits. Most academics will accept this: the RS lobby, however, does not – it challenges too many of their claims.

The legendary RS academic Reuben Smeed described the relationship between motorisation and the rate of deaths per motor vehicle in a country. His law demonstrated that large decreases in deaths per motor vehicle could be found in almost all countries as their levels of motorization increased. Smeed put this down to increases in car crashworthiness: more efficient brakes and suspension, padded dashboards, collapsible steering wheels, safety cages, crumple zones, air bags etc.

But Adams, re-working Smeed’s figures and showing how versions of the law remain usefully predictive, shows how this applies irrespective of the kind of car on the roads.

In fact, Adams argues that the declines in deaths can be considered as due to behavioural adaptation by road users as the volume of road traffic increases. Smeed referred to examples of children staying indoors as television ownership became more widespread as an explanation for child pedestrian casualties declining, and admitted that: “in some circumstances – behaviour is affected by the amounts of traffic on the roads”.

Also, factoring in the change in concentration on the part of a motorist in more congested road conditions, we can see that this increased crashworthiness has only been at best part of the reason for declining chances of being killed as a car occupant. Increased awareness of the chances of surviving crashes intact has had a detrimental effect on driver behaviour.

Highway engineers argue that reductions in deaths over time are due to their efforts.  Cutting down roadside trees; installing crash barriers; lengthening sight lines; surrounding bridge supports and other infrastructure with impact-attenuating devices: all are described as the reason for reductions in deaths.

Yet the same objections to these explanations apply as to vehicle design: adaptation by motorists, and understanding of accident migration and regression-to-mean, suggest in most cases that the claims made for engineering measures are overstated.

Far from there being a history of progress, we can see that declines in road deaths may be due to:

  • Spontaneous change in road user behaviour. Either or both the “social learning” theory or those focussing on small scale interactions, will come up with the same conclusion: people adapt to the increase on motor vehicle traffic throughout society, and this accounts for the changes Smeed observed. Not surprisingly, RS professionals do not want to think that changes have occurred irrespective of their interventions.
  • Withdrawal of the benign modes from the road environment. The most extreme form of behaviour change involving adaptation to danger is  removal of cyclist and pedestrians, particularly children prohibited from independent travel by their parents, out of the road environment altogether. Although this occurs for other reasons as well as adaptation to road danger, it is an explanation for supposed “progress” in “road safety”.
  • Increasing sophistication of postcollision medical care. possibly responsible for a reduction of nearly a half of the total road crash deaths since pre-war times due to better trauma care and treatment by emergency services.

But need it be like this? What alternative could we expect and promote?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that when the “safety measure” of pedestrian guard railing is removed, casualties decline: motorists adapt to pedestrians crossing more randomly in a way that – unlike most adaptations mentioned above – reduces motor danger.

Another case is cycling in London since 2000, where the last decade has seen the KSI rate (KSIs per cyclist distance travelled) cut by more than half. There has been limited change in relevant highway infrastructure, so this change has to be attributed to increased awareness of cyclists forced upon motorists by the significant increase in cycling. This is referred to as an example of “Critical Mass” or “Safety in Numbers” (SiN), essentially variants of the work done by earlier RC theorists. There is also a similar link between low levels of cycling and higher casualty rates between boroughs.

These examples show how Risk Compensation is not “just negative” (although it always casts aspersions on the claims of RS professionals), but shows ways forward. Of course, many RC professionals do not see the London cyclists example as particularly good because they are not concerned with cyclist casualties per journey or distance travelled – what has become called the “casualty rate”.

This raises the fundamental issue:
What kind of performance indicator of success is appropriate? What is it that we actually want?

The wrong data?

The data used by Smeed and Adams tell us about what has happened on the roads (although not as Smeed intended). But apart from this casualty statistics are rubbish – at best irrelevant and at worst misleading. Let’s draw breath and see why:

A primary rule of statistics is that all units should have equal status – like has to be compared with like. But RS statistics do not do that. The consequences of quite different kinds of incident are lumped together as if there was no difference between them. The fundamental issue of “who kills whom” is frozen out of the discourse.

When news items refer to the UK’s “road safety record”, no difference between the experiences of the various types of road user is made. So, for example, about a quarter of all the deaths on the road are of motorcyclists who only account for some 2% of journeys. They obviously have a far higher chance of being killed than a car occupant, who in turn has quite different chances of being killed if they are making urban as opposed to non-built up road journeys, if they are young or middle-aged etc.

More importantly, the figures do not tell you anything about responsibility. Have the dead motorcyclists been killed by motorists engaged in behaviour which threatened any road user at the location of the incident involved, or were they killed by their own rule or law breaking?

This not just a non-scientific approach, it is fundamentally immoral: by neutering the political issue of who kills whom RS is inevitably going to discriminate against the more vulnerable and the less dangerous to others.

So what would a good performance indicator for real road safety be? We are not just interested in what the (retrospectively calculated) chances of being hurt or killed are. We are interested in the chances of particular incidents occurring, and the kind of conditions they occur in. Even then this would only be a rough guide to the measures we want taken: ultimately we cannot live in a risk-free environment, but we can make those responsible for danger accountable, whether they be individual motorists, vehicle manufacturers or highway engineers.

At the very least we have to understand that low casualty numbers do not indicate that a highway environment has low levels of danger – it might be quite the opposite.

Finally, for those who feel entranced by numbers when confronted with the aggregated number of “Road Traffic Accident” deaths:

  • This number – as a proportion of all deaths in the UK – is actually quite small (less than 0.5%) – hardly a good lever for real road safety interventions.
  • This number is far smaller than those killed by adding up those from:

(a)  Poor health associated with car-based lifestyles. (A cycling modal share of the German (let alone Dutch or Danish) level would result in some 2 – 4,000 fewer lives lost per annum in the UK as a consequence of the health benefits of cycling alone).

(b)  Deaths from noxious emissions.

(c)  Deaths from resources being spent on road building etc. that could be spent on health care.

(d)  The deaths and poor health due to climate change created by motor vehicle emissions.

The road ahead

RDR is fundamentally different from RS. However, practitioners and campaigners can pursue RDR in ways similar to RS – such as speed reduction, increased law enforcement with deterrent sentencing for those significantly endangering others, rate-based targets etc. Since the RS industry has connived with careless and dangerous driving through its practice of providing “more forgiving” road and car environments for motorists assumed to be bent on rule- and law-breaking, the least it can do is demand proper driver liability in collisions involving cyclists or pedestrians.

The point of this article is to provide the alternative perspective with which practitioners should view interventions: what will be the short- and long-term effects when inevitable adaptation occurs? Will cyclist or driver training, shared space, separated cycle tracks or whatever actually reduce danger at source – and how will that be measured? Will practitioners continue to be implicated in the far larger numbers of life years lost from motor traffic than in RTAs? What are the objectives of that branch of transport policy concerned with safety in a civilised society?


 Road danger reduction: the basics

  • Speak English, not “roadsafetyese”. Very often all you have to do is invert the speech to get the real road safety meaning. For example, more crashworthy cars which encourage less careful driving are not “safer”, but more dangerous. A “safe road” which has few reported casualties may be one where there is a lot of motor danger which reduces pedestrian and cyclist traffic.
  • Always remember the “who kills – or just endangers – whom?” question.
  •  Safety on the road is above all a moral and political question involving a pronounced hierarchy of danger.
  • The aim of real road safety is reducing danger at source (e.g. primarily from motorised traffic) and holding those responsible for it accountable. The numbers of people reported as injured is another issue – even the better indicator of casualty rates (per journey or distance travelled) is less important than reducing danger and holding those responsible for it accountable.
  • Always remember that people adapt to perceived danger. This can be in both the short and long term, with cultural change accepting practices previously thought unacceptable. The strategy is to get adaptation so that danger is reduced at source.
  • Safety on the road is ultimately about which groups of road users are allowed to do what to whom. A sustainable transport policy means reducing motorist hegemony: at the very least it means questioning it – something which is firmly resisted by the RS lobby.


Embedding road danger reduction in Lambeths LTP


 The decision to adopt a Road Danger Reduction (RDR) approach to transport policy was championed by Councillor Nigel Haselden, currently Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Planning and Strategic Transport at Lambeth Council.  The council signed the Road Danger Reduction Charter and became the first local authority to appoint an RDR manager.

 In the ten years to the end of 2010, Lambeth succeeded in meeting its statutory casualty reduction targets, achieving a substantial reduction in the number of pedestrians and children being injured.   However, despite engineering improvements such as the introduction of 20mph zones, coupled with road safety campaigns, the council was aware of the remaining underlying perception, especially among those outside cars (i.e. pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists) that the risk of them being injured on the road was not diminishing despite the reduction in casualty numbers.  Drivers on the other hand were likely to have a perception that the roads were becoming safer as the developments in safety systems within cars (seat belts, advanced braking systems, airbags) improved and reduced the likelihood of crashing and the severity of possible injuries for those inside vehicles.  This meant that there was a growing imbalance in the perception of safety of those inside and those outside cars or other enclosed motorised vehicles.

 It also became apparent that the prevailing approach to road safety engineering, based on interventions at sites where there is a cluster of collisions, was a finite one.  Over time all sites which could be improved by engineering interventions would have been improved and the remaining “black-spots” would not be able to be improved by physical measures alone.  Casualties would become more scattered around the borough and reductions in casualties ever more difficult to achieve.

 Lambeth therefore decided to use the principles of road danger reduction as the basis of its new transport strategy.

 Lambeth’s Road Safety Plan 2005-2011 cited many of the principles of RDR in its aims, and indeed, many aspects of Lambeth’s Road Safety Strategy have for several years been in tune with an RDR approach: i.e. recognising the need to reduce danger at source by reducing vehicle speeds through 20mph zones and engineering changes to the environment and promoting modal shift from private motorised vehicles (i.e. cars and motorbikes) to less threatening, and more sustainable modes.  The earlier Plan also recognised that reducing the fear and intimidation that more vulnerable road users felt was paramount in order to bring about social inclusion and improve quality of life.

 The draft RDR Strategy outlines principles which have been embedded in the new Lambeth Transport Plan (LTP) and provides the overarching vision which the LTP aims to achieve.  The two documents complement each other and are designed to be read together.

 The key objectives of Lambeth’s new Transport Plan put RDR at its heart.  One objective explicitly espouses RDR with the aim of “Reducing the real and perceived danger on Lambeth’s roads”, recognising the importance of measuring whether people perceive that the level of danger on the roads has reduced. The other key objectives also follow RDR principles:  promote sustainable healthy travel behaviour; improve air quality and reduce CO2 emissions; improve the condition of principal roads.

 Lambeth puts renewed emphasis on its road user hierarchy in its new RDR strategy and LTP to ensure that the least polluting, least threatening and most active forms of travel are always prioritised.  This means that no new schemes or activities should adversely affect a group of road users placed higher in the road user hierarchy.

 * Walking (including mobility impaired persons)


  • Buses
  • Taxis and minicabs
  • Motorcycles/scooters
  • Freight Transport
  • Private Cars

 One of the most challenging aspects of RDR is to find new ways of measuring the increase or decrease of danger on the roads. 

 Lambeth is planning to add the following measures to the statutory measure of casualty figures:

 Reduction in vehicle speeds

  • Reduction in number of motorised vehicles
  • Increase in numbers of people walking and cycling
  • Decrease in dangerous driver behaviour (e.g. mobile phone use)
  • Perception surveys among pedestrians and cyclists as to whether roads feel more or less dangerous.

 The council is looking at new ways to prioritise engineering schemes, perhaps giving a higher weighting to locations where cyclists and pedestrians have been injured rather than the occupants of motorised vehicles.  Deprivation levels will also be looked at when prioritising schemes.

 In order to strongly embed RDR principles in all strands of transport policy, road safety engineering, parking implementation, sustainable transport and road safety education training and publicity teams will join together with strategic planning to form one Transportation Team. 

 The Transportation Team will use a “Better Neighbourhoods” approach as a means of delivering its RDR strategy.  When delivering future local safety schemes, 20mph zones and controlled parking zones, Lambeth will complement engineering works with a range of softer measures such as cycle facilities and training, travel awareness and road safety campaigns.  Maintenance work will also be used as an opportunity to introduce complementary RDR measures.

  Road safety officers will work closely with sustainable transport officers, promoting modal shift to walking and cycling and providing practical training to equip road users (especially younger ones) with the skills to become confident pedestrians and cyclists.  Road safety campaigns, education and training will focus primarily on targeting sources of the greatest danger (the drivers of motorised vehicles) and aim to encourage people to choose less polluting, less threatening modes of transport as well as educating drivers and motorcyclists to become more aware of the needs of people outside cars.  Lambeth will also aim to work closely with the police as enforcement is a key part of reducing road danger.