Debate on causes of casualty decline in LTT

A debate on the reasons for declines in road traffic casualties continues in the practitioner’s fortnightly Local Transport Today. The current issue contains my weighing in as RDRF Chair   on the side of those recognising that risk compensation exists…

..against those who (presumably) think that human beings do not adapt to perceptions of danger. I also draw attention to the hierarchy of danger (the “who kills whom” question) as follows:

John Adams and Ben Hamilton-Baillie (LTT 576) are absolutely correct in
their debunking of Phillip Sulley’s (and the “road safety” establishment’s)
mythology of the supposed benefits of highway engineering with regard to safety
on the road. 
 My article in LTT’s supplement Road Safety: Towards 2020?,  (LTT570 06 May – 19 May 2011) states the case against the dominant ideology of road safety more extensively.

Adaptive behaviour by all road users (often referred to as “risk
compensation”) is not just a key explanatory factor for overall changes in road
death numbers, as Adams and Hamilton-Baillie show, but an indicator of crucial
elements in shaping a properly civilised policy on road danger.

It shows how the idiot-proofing of the vehicle (seat belts, roll bars,
crumple zones, air bags etc.) and highway environment (crash barriers, removal
of road side trees etc.) has connived with, if not produced, idiot drivers.

Risk comensation shows, for example, how “road safety” professionals may
consider a section of highway “safe” for pedestrians  when the absence of pedestrian casualties may
be due to an absence of pedestrians – often precisely because of the level of
danger. On a positive note, it shows how road users can adapt to not endanger
others: such as the phenomena of reduced cyclist KSI rates in London since 2000
due to “safety in numbers”, or the beneficial effects of guard railing removal
on pedestrian casualties.

It also prompts questions about what we want as an objective from a
proper approach to road safety. While the study of road deaths at the macro
level across societies gives us the information gathered by Smeed and correctly
commented on by Adams and Hamilton-Baillie, aggregating casualties from all
road users groups does not otherwise tell us anything of real value. It does
not tell us about the chances of people in particular road user groups becoming
a casualty (although thankfully there is at last now some official
consideration of “rate-based” targets for pedestrians and cyclists). It glosses
over the difference in lethality of different groups, ignoring the central
moral question of who kills, hurts or endangers whom.

All of this points to the position taken by groups such as those
representing pedestrians and cyclists, and RoadPeace and the Road Danger
Reduction Forum, namely that the only civilised approach is to aim for safety
for all road users by reducing danger at source – namely from inappropriate use
of motor vehicles – and by making those responsible for it accountable.

Moving in this direction will require a genuinely scientific assessment
of what has happened, including a willingness on the part of practitioners to
accept how they have been part of the problem of danger on the road. Many will
find this difficult: but facing up to this task is what science – and morality
– is about.

Robert Davis; Chair; Road Danger Reduction Forum; LONDON NW10


…the debate continues…