“Road danger reduction and road safety are not the same”


Photo from Local Transport Today 644 (4th April 2014)

Below is the text of a letter published in Local Transport Today  644 in response to a long letter from Professor Oliver Carsten in the previous issue  showing how the UK’s “road safety record” is presented in an undeservedly “sunny” light. I state that the way he points this out is welcome, but needs to go a lot further…Oliver Carsten’s demolition of “our” “road safety performance” (Letters, LTT 643) is a welcome first step by a senior academic to catch up with what the Road Danger Reduction (RDR) movement has been saying for decades. But stating the very obvious should be just that only – a first step.


Carsten makes the obvious point that some people (the “vulnerable road users”, so called because – like most travelers on the planet – they happen to be outside motor vehicles) are more prone to being hurt when collisions occur. He could have included elderly people and then children, but let’s go one small step at a time.



So let’s suggest some further steps for Professor Carsten and others who may be interested in a civilised approach to the subject to consider in a civilised assessment of safety on the road.
The basic strategy is to get the language right: do try and speak English and not “roadsafetyese”. A good way of introducing the English language into the discussion is with this word “danger”. Generally “road safety” (RS) professionals use this word intransitively – with regard to danger being done to somebody. So an elderly pedestrian is doing something “dangerous” whereas the Volvo driver threatening him and others on the road is “safe”. The RDR movement thinks we need to invert this, and concentrate on seeing those with more lethal potential – essentially the motorised of various types – as being the “DRUs” (dangerous road users).



To take another language example from the letter, it is not “our” road safety record. Some people have chosen modes of transport more potentially lethal than others. Some people are more careful than others. Some people reduce the chances of their children being hurt by not allowing them to walk or cycle (while having a far higher chance of premature death because, as Carsten says, of the morbidity and mortality associated with non-active travel), etc. I don’t think that “we” should all be lumped in it together in terms of responsibility for “our” record.



Here’s another one: sometimes there are few pedestrian or cyclist casualties at a location – such as a rural road with high speed motor traffic or a busy gyratory system – precisely because there is high amount of danger from motor traffic. These locations (or to be more precise, since we are talking about the importance of language, those responsible for the motor vehicles involved) are more dangerous, not less.



Try some thought exercises: Professor Carsten says that “travel on foot or by bicycle is far more dangerous than travel in a car”. As explained above, if we take a more civilised approach which concentrates on responsibility towards others, we should base our approach on the fact that walking and cycling pose far less of a threat than using a car does. Working out how to use the words properly can help turn road safety into road danger reduction, moving from accepting danger on the road with its attendant victim blaming into a more civilised approach to safety on the road. Luckily, for most professionals this can be easy as it will often be a case of simply inverting previous thought.



The last misuse of a word I will look at now is “road safety performance”. As he suggests, the official way of assessing this is deeply flawed. I described similar points, restricted to cycling and walking but more extensively, in my LTT 635 (15th November 2013) Comment piece on how to measure safety on the road.



Now it becomes a bit harder. Everyone knows that adaptive behaviour to perceptions of risk (risk compensation) is a fact of life. This will be hard for RS practitioners unwilling to accept that increased crashworthiness of vehicles and more forgiving highway environments has reduced care taken by drivers. Ultimately the move towards RDR from RS means having to accept the evidence and that your profession has had – at the very least – a flawed approach.



Finally, there is of course a sense in which looking at aggregated road traffic fatalities over time does make a lot of sense. This is the work done by John Adams in interpreting Reuben Smeed’s descriptions of deaths in different countries related to levels of car ownership: it shows changes which occur irrespective of road safety interventions occurring.



In other words, RS professionals have to consider that apparently positive changes may actually conceal (enforced) reduction in more benign mode use – and they also have to consider that what positive changes that have happened may well have happened anyway. Insofar as official interventions have a responsibility for change, improvement could have occurred by following the central aim of the RDR movement. This is reducing danger at source – from the ways in which motor traffic is used – for the benefit of all road users and as part of a sustainable transport policy. This will be emotionally hard for traditional practitioners in this area. Are they up to it?

Robert Davis
Road Danger Reduction Forum

NOTE; Byelines in letters to LTT (and elsewhere) are not chosen by the writer. Ideally the bye-line here  would have read  Road danger reduction and “road safety” are not the same : The Road Danger Reduction (RDR) movement sees itself as opposed to the official “road safety” (RS) lobby to create what we think of as “real road safety” – a civilised approach to danger on the roads to create Safer Roads For All. Hopefully this comes out of the text of the letter. – but sometimes inverted commas can be helpful.

To see what I was responding to the best thing is to read LTT letters by  subscribing to the online version or the print version.

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