The myth that the majority of drivers are "no real danger"

We make another key point about the dire Strategic Framework for Road Safety  we commented on yesterday.

This is the central theme of absolving the majority of those drivers responsible for most of the danger on the roads by diverting attention on to the very worst drivers – who won’t be dealt with either.Let’s look at what the Government Minister says in some detail:  “We want to make a clear distinction between those drivers who are a real danger to road safety – reckless, dangerous drivers – and those who are merely occasionally careless or who make an honest mistake,” the transport secretary, Philip Hammond, said in the Daily Mail.

That means much more emphasis on enforcement against those who represent the biggest risk and a big increase in the use of education for those who make minor transgressions.”

As the Guardian report says: “Ordinary motorists should not fear the tough new penalties…” And this is echoed by the DfT spokesman saying  “The strategy will focus on cracking down on the really reckless drivers through more efficient enforcement. By giving the police the tools to deal with those who present the greatest danger to others, we can make our roads even safer. While seeking to do everything possible to tackle the most dangerous drivers, the strategy will also help the responsible majority to improve their driving. This is the government’s twin approach to improving road safety.”

This is the classic strategy of posing a responsible, decent majority (that’s people like you and me) as against a minority of bad people (that’s other people, not decent types like us). It’s been dissected by sociologists of “deviant behaviour” for decades: the process underlying such a strategy is one of bolstering the mainstream or dominant ideology by referring to a deviant “out group”. In this case, we have those who “are a real danger to road safety – reckless, dangerous drivers” – note the point that this is the real danger – on the one hand. They “represent the biggest risk” . On the other hand we have “the responsible majority” who  “are merely occasionally careless or who make an honest mistake“.

There is another quote referred to by our friends in RoadPeace: “We intend for the action we take to be seen as aceptable and proportionate to the majority of motorists” – which continues this theme. As RoadPeace say: why not all road users?

But let’s take a look at the supposed basis for this dichotomy.

There are obviously particularly bad drivers. Looking at a statistical distribution of driving, we will see at one end those who are most careful at one end, and those who are most dangerous at the other. It is quite probable that the worst 5% are some 3 times more likely to be in collisions than the average driver. (This figure is one I have been using for some years and I believe it still pertains – but the precise size of this factor does not matter for the purpose of this argument).  Concentrating resources on this minority may seem attractive – and this group certainly does need appropriate controls – but it leaves out 85% of the problem. And that of course is even if the methods of control chosen are totally effective. In particular, it also neglects the way in which those responsible for 85% of the problems feel even more justified in their behaviour – because the focus on the worst let’s them think that they are responsible, the decent majority, not the real danger etc.

What does the Government say about it?

“5.1 More than half of road deaths are associated with one or more of drink driving, driving whilst impaired by drugs, speeding, careless driving (includes dangerous driving, driving with a distraction and not wearing seatbelts).”

Let’s examine these main types of behaviour in terms of behaviour endangering others:

1. Drunk, drugged and non-seatbelt wearers may be primarily endangering themselves – but if this is so their danger to others may be of a lower proportion than that aggregated under “road deaths”. So these extreme forms of criminal driving may actually be a small minority of what we can think of as road danger – danger posed to others on the road.

2. “Careless driving”. This is a very interesting term: there is an offence of “careless driving” (which I assume is what is being referred to here) which is alternatively referred to as “driving without due care and attention”. This is an excellent description: it implies a level of care is due – what we otherwise refer to as a duty of care. While the Highway Code recommendations are not the same as the law (unless specified as such), breaking the Highway Code can result in careless driving prosecutions – which generally only occur after a collisionhas occurred. A  read through the Highway code or examination of successful prosecutions for careless driving shows that “careless driving” is not just an extreme form of driver behaviour, but quite commonplace.

3. Speeding. if this is taken as breaking the speed limit, there is plenty of evidence showing that this too, is commonplace, with a large minority breaking speed limits. Obviously this differs over different roads with different speed limits, but the figures on 30 mph limit roads indicate some 40%breaking the limit when possible.

So we can conclude that the first forms of behaviour (drunk and drugged driving) are probably a small minority of the problems for other road users – around the 5% level. The other forms of behaviour may well add up to a much larger proportion of the problem – but are not restricted to a small minority. And then we have the other half of  road deaths – which are presumably related to more normal – and socially acceptable – behaviour.

What this means is that what most local authority professionals (particularly in urban areas) know is correct: most of the danger on the road is due to behaviour which is mainstream driving behaviour.

This does not, of course, mean that the extremes should not be tackled. it means that we should see them as just that – extremes of behaviour , with the vast majority of the problems lie a lot closer to the average driver’s home.

In the next post we will be looking at what at else is wrong with the SFRS.