The French are to continue with their programme for felling trees to protect motorists who drive off the road. This story illuminates yet again how “road safety” (The Telegraph piece correctly uses inverted commas) ideology and practice inherently colludes with homicidal rule and law breaking by the motorised, rather than working to reduce danger at source.
This is an old story. In 2001 it was reported that gangs of chainsaw-wielding motorcyclists (the “Anti-Plane Tree Commando”) were felling roadside trees in the name of “road safety”, and France has had a policy of felling such “obstacles” for some time.
What interest us are the arguments for and against the measure. Against the felling are conservation groups arguing for the beauty of the French countryside. While a noteworthy cause, that is not our principal concern. There is also an argument that shadows from roadside trees have a speed-reducing effect on drivers, and that the presence of trees can otherwise moderate driver carelessness. That’s more to the point, although not our main interest here.
The next argument is that there is no demonstrable effect (as seen through casualty statistics before and after felling) on casualty rates. That is a good point – and rarely comes up in discussion. But again, it is not the main point. After all, the history of “road safety” is history of measures being implemented regardless of the evidence on their success in reducing casualties.
The risk compensation question
Often this is because, as we have seen again and again, drivers adapt to their perceptions of danger (risk compensation) and the “road safety” intervention largely displaces the risk elsewhere. And what is really interesting is how this happens not just in the short term – as displayed in the (lack of) change in casualties – but in the long term. These long-term effects are the penetration of our culture by unstated ideas about what safety on the road is all about. And that is our main point in this piece.
For what we think is really revealing about this episode in the history of “road safety” is the acceptance of, and conniving and colluding with, rule-breaking and illegal driving. Even where drivers are forced off the road into trees by other drivers, the problem for us is essentially that of motor vehicles being driven off the road. This, for those who don’t know, is illegal.
There are two problems with this. In the short term, measures which idiot-proof motoring produce (or at least facilitate) idiot motoring. Whether it be idiot-proofing the vehicle environment (seat belts, crumple zones, side impact protection systems, collapsible steering columns, air bags or ABS brakes), or idiot-proofing the highway environment (anti-skid, longer sight lines, crash barriers, hatching and wider centre lines), the evidence shows a worsening of driver behaviour.
This is through changes which are generally slight enough not to be immediately noticeable, but sufficient to counter much if not all or more of the benefits. This consumption of the safety benefits as performance benefits – as the technical literature calls it – also shifts the danger on to other road users, usually those who are less dangerous to others and more vulnerable.
In the longer term it has less distinct, but crucial, effect in terms of altering general assumptions about what the problem of danger on the road actually is. The deleterious effects of “road safety” practice and beliefs are on our society’s culture. For what really counts is how the commentary on the tree-felling in France hardly ever mentions that motorists are not supposed to drive their vehicles off the road.
The Road Danger Reduction opposition
There are exceptions: Chantal Fauché, the president of the Association for the Protection of Road-side Trees, blames successive French governments for creating an anti-tree psychosis among road users. “The politicians prefer to cut down trees rather than take any real action against speeding and drinking, which are the real causes of deaths on the roads,” she said.
But there is hope.
In presentations for some years I have been referring to this school of “road safety” engineering. In a key text (Rattenbury and Gloyns, Traffic Engineering and Control , October 1992) cutting down roadside trees is described as “like putting insulating tape on electric cable”: tree stumps should also be removed “as these can still be aggressive”; fences are “a particularly aggressive form of man-made structure” . Faced with this sense of motorist entitlement – a world where “my way” extends not just to wherever the driver feels like going on the road, but off it as well – the audience reaction is fascinating.
The traditional highway engineers don’t understand what the problem might be. Some may stare at their shoes as gales of laughter sweep from the (few) members of the audience from sustainable transport, cyclist, pedestrian or other road danger reduction organisations. I can report that there is more laughter as the years go on. For whatever reason, a generation including some professionals and campaigners prepared to support road danger reduction as opposed to “road safety” has appeared.
Errant drivers don’t deserve the death penalty for their violent law breaking – but then neither do their actual or potential victims, particularly if they are using transport modes which pose less of a threat to others.
The decent and humane way of addressing the issue is to reduce danger at source – whether through vehicle or highway engineering, law enforcement or whatever – for the benefit of all road users’ safety. The precise technologies (if any) don’t really matter.
In addition, while violent driver rule and law breaking is not only tolerated but accommodated by this society, arguments which shift blame on to cyclists and pedestrians simply have no basis (See this episode , for example). If careless, reckless, criminally negligent – whatever – behaviour by drivers is accommodated, then it’s unjust to treat that by those with less lethality to others any differently.
What matters is that we understand what the problem is. Doing that means deconstructing the ideology behind roadside tree felling and replacing it with something civilised. It means opposing “road safety” and replacing it with road danger reduction.