Blaming bollards and trees – and why it’s important

Bollard photo

This may appear to be a break from discussion of the current major campaigns for cyclist safety – but it is not. While cyclists are not directly mentioned, consideration of this issue is crucial to addressing safety for all road users, including cyclists.

This issue is how – supposedly – trees, bollards and other inanimate objects are “dangerous”. It tells us much of what we need to know about the official view of “road safety”.

I am indebted to West Sussex Today  in its 1st February edition:

Wisborough Green tree collision
EMERGENCY services were called to Wisborough Green after a collision involving a car and a tree (my emphasis) on Tuesday January 31.  (This comes from the site As Easy as Riding a Bike  : while we may differ from its views on highway infrastructure, this is a superb site for commentary on road crashes. It carefully discusses law breaking in detail with great patience and courtesy).

I am similarly indebted to the Wimbledon Guardian:   “Bollard to blame for recent Wimbledon crashes, residents claim” via Cycalogical   No doubt if you trawl the local press anywhere in the UK you will come across similar stories. I suggest you consider this one in the commentary by As Easy as Riding a Bike. with its careful taking apart of the persistent excuses for driver rule-breaking.

I have some form here. I quote from my book   (p 55.)

(b) “Safe” road environments

In 1988 a major conference on what “road safety” jargon refers to as Single Vehicle Only (SVO) crashes took place.13 These crashes typically involve young men who are drunk and tired driving off the road late at night. The problem of SVOs, which constitute a sixth of all injury-producing crashes in Britain, would in the early days of awareness about danger on the roads, and in the supporters of the New Agenda, lead to consideration of issues such as specific restrictions on young people driving, crack downs on drinking and driving, or the provision of public transport. The 1988 conference, however, advocated crash barriers on off-road objects, using “frangible, breakaway or flexible materials” in the construction of poles and other street furniture. As The Guardian motoring correspondent put it:

Badly sited traffic signals, telegraph or electricity poles, a tree or bus shelter, can cause injury or death.”

 The general dangers of car use – regularly discussed in the pre-war period – were nowhere in sight.

Following this approach, as bus shelters are moved over to the far side of the footway, pedestrians may be forced to desert the increasingly exposed areas which have been prepared for more danger in the name of safety. No statistics will show an increase in pedestrian or two-wheeler casualties, as the motorists’ leeway increases again. I suggest that there are the long-term cultural implications of such a way of assessing “accident causation”, of defining the problem of danger on the roads. In terms of the social policy discussed below, these implications are negative.

The reference is: 14 Davis, R, “An end to road deaths?”, New Society, 22/4/88. For an indication of the approach involved see Lawson, S, “Cushioning the impact” Surveyor, 21 March 1991. Knocking down roadside trees etc. is likened to putting insulating wire on electric cable by the author, now employed by the AA.

As an exercise at conferences and seminars I would quote from the other reference: Rattenbury, S, and Gloyns, P: “Accident patterns in rural access and scope for countermeasures: vehicles and highways“, Traffic and Engineering and Control, October 1992. Not only trees but stumps “as these can still be aggressive” (p. 541) should be removed, as well as fences since these are “a particularly aggressive form of man-made structure” (p. 544).  Those people in the audience not members of the “road safety” community would laugh, while the highway engineers and other “road safety” types would be unable to understand the laughter.

I suggest that consideration of the two newspaper stories is immediately relevant to the cycle safety campaigns now running.

In the debates to come about cyclist safety, there is the inevitable argument that cyclists are to blame for any – or at least some – of the collisions they are involved with. But if driving off the road or crashing into bollards designed to protect a pedestrian refuge is not the fault of the motorist, how can cyclists be blamed – even if they obviously failed to obey the relevant regulations and laws? After all,  the dominant “road safety” culture – expressed by newspapers, local authority Councillors, official “road safety” personnel such as highway engineers and even police officers – colludes and connives with motorist law breaking.

Inevitably – again – we are told that two wrongs don’t make a right. Cyclists (or pedestrians) should not come down to the level of the motorist unable or unwilling to keep their vehicle in the right position on the road (or on it at all, for that matter).

Except it is not coming down to that level. The fundamental difference in the level of potential lethality of pedestrians and cyclists on the one hand, and the motorised on the other, is fundamental, even though it is glossed over by “road safety” ideology. And it should be central to any discussion of safety on the road.

In the debates to come it is essential that we stress the need to reduce danger on the road at source – that is to say, from the (mis) use of motor vehicles – and to hold those responsible for it, whether traffic and highway engineers, vehicle designers or individual drivers, accountable. The commitment towards doing this is the key factor, with the oft-discussed means – from highway engineering through law enforcement, vehicle design and other methods – secondary. Ultimately these measures will be part of a cultural change which recognises those outside cars as people with human rights. And that cultural change will involve understanding the existing “road safety” culture of uncritically seeing inanimate objects as “dangerous” is part of the problem of danger on the road.