How many cyclists and pedestrians is it alright to kill in order to protect car occupants from bad driving?

In amongst all the fuss about Mayor’s Vision for Cycling in London, the Get Britain Cycling Inquiry  , the pressure from motorists’ organisations  to cut fuel duty (well, there should be a fuss about this) one important item has slipped under the radar – apart from for those genuinely interested in the safety of all road users.

This is the 30th anniversary of a move successfully lobbied for by the “road safety” lobby, which –although it took them 26 years to admit it – led to “a clear reduction in death and injury to car occupants, appreciably offset by extra deaths among pedestrians and cyclists (my emphasis)   So, how many cyclists and pedestrians is it alright to kill in order to protect car occupants from bad driving? Other issues apart from the moral one are revealed by this episode, so do read on:

Now that you are, all you have to read is here:  although to get a more through grounding download “Risk and Freedom: The record of road safety regulation” and “Risk” here  .

When I have raised this, many colleagues simply don’t want to discuss the matter. It’s all over, forget about it. Now, I have to admit to wearing a seat belt on those infrequent occasions when I travel by car. And I don’t seriously advocate banning seat belts and replacing the steering column with a sharp spike – although it would dramatically improve the care taken by drivers.

So here are some reasons why it’s important:

  1. It is good to not lie or cover up evidence (as in the concealing of the Isles report which predicted increased pedestrian and other deaths in the seat belt law was passed). If you are going to claim to be scientific and evidence-based, then be so.
  2. At the risk of contradicting the ideology of utilitarianism and cost-benefit analysis, I have to say – please bear with me here – something that I’m not happy about. I don’t want my life being threatened – even more than it already is – because other people can’t or won’t obey the law and necessary regulations required of them, and that officialdom sees fit to collude and connive with that rule and law breaking. That may seem extreme, but I have to agree with Professor Adams that the justifications for the “offset by extra deaths among cyclists and pedestrians” is sophistry.

Just in case anybody thinks this means that RDRF does not care about the safety of car occupants – nonsense! As we have made clear from the start, we believe in safety for all road users, which is why it is on our mast head. As we said at the time of seat belt legislation there were (and of course still are) numerous ways in which car occupants can be protected. These measures are based on reducing danger at source – from the inappropriate use of motor vehicles – which would protect all road users. Sadly, the idiot-proofing of the car and highway environment, of which seat belt use is a key part, has impeded the prospects of achieving this.

Finally, I re-iterate comments made before:

The seat belt law experience is highly relevant today in respect to matters other than cycle helmets: however much eyes may roll at the prospect of statistical analysis of a law passed decades ago, this matter is highly pertinent.

  • The obvious truth of adaptive behaviour or risk compensation indicates that the relentless idiot-proofing of the driver environment – whether of the vehicle or highway – has produced idiots in such a way that the “road safety” lobby is hardly well qualified to pontificate on matters of cyclist or pedestrian safety – of which cycle helmets is just one. No doubt this is a main reason for the denial of such effects from the “road safety” establishment.
  • The obvious truth of adaptive behaviour or risk compensation is central to contemporary discussions of some very positive episodes: the good experience of safety with “shared streets” and the decline in casualty rates among London cyclists as just one example of “safety in numbers” with numbers of cyclists approaching “critical mass”.
  •  The obvious truth of adaptive behaviour or risk compensation indicates that supposed progress in declining RTA fatalities and other casualties may have resulted from adaptive behaviour by the most benign and vulnerable road users, as opposed to “road safety” interventions, including migration from the road environment entirely. Again, this might explain some denial from practitioners of “road safety”.
  •  The obvious truth of adaptive behaviour or risk compensation indicates that some changes in fatalities are due to changes described by the Smeed and Adams curves, and are independent of interventions claimed by “road safety” professionals.”

UPDATE March 2016:

From the Question and Answers to a presentation by Jessica Matthew, (Deputy Director for Road User Licensing, Insurance and Safety, Department for Transport), at the Transport for London annual road safety conference “Tackling the Sources of Road Danger” on March 4th, 2016:

In response to a question about the possibility of risk compensation by users of motorcyclist air bags – where additional risk would be passed on to potential victims of motorcyclists so equipped –  Ms. Matthews gave an interesting response as follows:

Although she said she was not an expert on the details, she accepted that risk compensation by road users was a fact and had happened with car seat belt use.  However there was an overall benefit from seat belt use (by which she presumably meant that fewer people had been killed or seriously injured in total).

SO: a DfT senior official accepts that this landmark piece of legislation, which is continually quoted as an unalloyed benefit to all, did in fact lead to the deaths of those – principally pedestrians – outside cars. On the issue of the precise numbers involved, she claims that this was lower than the lives saved, although accepts that as she is not a statistical expert on the statistics, even this may be incorrect.


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