I’m aware that there is something of a London-centred bias in our posts. Nevertheless, what Transport for London does is of special interest to transport professionals and campaigners throughout the UK: while it is the Highway Authority for only a small minority of London’s roads, it has massive influence through its funding of Boroughs throughout London. With a dire record of (in)action on sustainable transport in the UK’s central Government, London is often where we have to look for potential progress.
So when TfL has peppered its current strategy “Safe London streets: Our approach” with references to danger reduction, and called its 2016 annual conference on March 4th “Tackling the Sources of Road Danger”, it’s time to take notice. Is TfL really moving from “road safety” towards reducing danger at source?
Defining road danger
For those of us in the road danger reduction (RDR) movement, danger on the road comes from the (ab)use of motor vehicles. While there may well be obligations on pedestrians and cyclists, the source of road danger is the breaking of official rules and laws by the motorised. As well as rule/law-breaking, danger from motor traffic can also come from rule-obeying drivers: in case that seems unfair, remember that the official “road safety” industry has accommodated rule/law breaking by drivers through highway engineering (felling roadside trees, installing crash barriers; anti-skid and other highway treatments etc.) and vehicle engineering(crumple zones, roll bars, seat belts, air bags etc.).
In summary: creating “Safer Roads for All” means focusing on what drivers and motorcyclists get up to. The primary focus is protecting their potential victims from rule/law breaking, although there should be allowance for pedestrians and cyclists being able to make mistakes without being punished by injury or death. Necessary measures may involve highway or vehicle engineering, or law enforcement (backed up by education and publicity if necessary). Essentially we require a culture where safety on the road is discussed in terms of intolerance of endangering others, as part of a sustainable transport policy.
TfL’s definition of road danger.
TfL refer to “the five main sources of road danger”.
It is difficult to deny that these are driver behaviours which should be tackled. They are indeed examples of road danger, and tackling them would indeed be tackling danger at source. But, at the risk of appearing nit-picking, it is worth examining these as the specific priorities TfL has set itself. So:
- Travelling too fast. While the effects of speed cameras in London have sparked debate which we have contributed to this is a key area for reducing danger for all road users, with pedestrians key beneficiaries. It’s also good that this is not just restricted to obeying speed limits.
- Becoming distracted. This has become a major topic of discussion amongst practitioners – although exactly how it is to be tackled with new cars being replete with ever-increasing amounts of electronic distractions is dubious. Just think how often you see drivers using phones…
- Undertaking risky manoeuvres. This is where “Safe London streets: Our approach” is puzzling. All “manoeuvres have an element of risk involved – the key is to identify which ones. The whole of this section is taken up with HGVs “manoeuvring” left across cyclists. This is welcome, as half the deaths of cyclists in London involve HGVs, and is an area which the RDRF has spent a lot of time addressing over the years. (For our most recent posts, see here and here) However, collisions with HGVs cause only about 10% of cyclist serious injuries, and even with a similar number of pedestrian deaths to cyclist deaths, the left turning manoeuvre by lorry drivers is low down the list of priorities if we are talking about danger overall. It still needs to be addressed in the ways we have suggested – but “risky manoeuvres” by ordinary drivers are far more important in terms of the overall danger presented to other road users.
- Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. An old standard – necessary to stigmatise and tackle. However, in the overall context of danger to others, it is a minor area with little on the horizon in terms of radically reducing this particular form of road danger.
- Failure to comply with the laws of the roads. In principle, this could cover many of the behaviours we might be concerned with. There is the crucial issue of whether behaviours defined as rule-breaking in the Highway Code – opening car doors without looking for cyclists, overtaking cyclists too close, turning into side roads without deferring to pedestrians, driving too close to the vehicle in front – can be defined as “careless driving/driving without due care and attention”. If they can, a lot more of real significance to reducing danger at source could be listed. But generally they are not, and no doubt the Police would be unable to countenance dealing with problems that are so widespread that most drivers don’t see anything wrong with the behaviour involved.
Instead, “failure to comply with the laws of the roads” is restricted to cameras for red light offences, unsafe HGVs, and continuation of Operation Safeway – about which we have voiced our concerns here and in other posts.
What’s the problem? Measuring danger.
So what stops TfL from going for a full-blown RDR approach? How we actually measure danger is a key difference between Road Danger Reduction and traditional “Road Safety”. So far TfL is still basically restricting itself to working back from collisions. The question of how pedestrians and cyclists may avoid places precisely because of the levels of danger presented there is therefore missed out. We have discussed the need to measure danger differently, and would expect TfL to do more than just monitor KSIs or prosecutions.
To be fair, some TfL officers at the 2016 conference did mention the issue of perception of danger. But while TfL still highlights overall cyclist (and pedestrian) casualties rather than using exposure-based (“rate-based”) measures and targets their approach is fundamentally flawed, as explained here.
Why do casualty numbers change?
At the 2016 annual conference, Ben Plowden of TfL claimed that “we are making huge strides…in reducing casualties”. But we believe that casualty reduction occurs for reasons which are often nothing to do with official “road safety” interventions, a point made by John Adams among others.
For example, in 2014 there were 463 cyclist KSIs in London, and in 2015 385 – a decline by no less than 17%. This could be a temporary glitch with KSIs going up again in 2016, and in terms of a long-term decline this one year comparison may not seem so noteworthy. Nevertheless, there are grounds for speculation on the reasons for this decline – what happened in 2015? It is difficult to see any official intervention as responsible – none of the Cycle Superhighways had been completed, and it is difficult to identify any other change. Again, we have to consider spontaneous behavioural change by road users, not official “road safety” interventions.
A key element of the RDR approach is motor traffic reduction. There are some TfL publications that refer to a forecast (slightly) lower modal share for cars in London, but on the whole we would suggest that TfL is not embarked on such a path. Indeed at the March4th conference there was reference to “not waging war on the motorist”, which is normally code for tolerating or increasing the use of motor vehicles (along with “reconciling different demands” etc.).
Who endangers, hurts or kills whom?
A central element of the RDR project is highlighting the difference between danger to others and being endangered. The traditional “road safety” approach blurs the distinction, whereas we emphasise the point on moral and scientific grounds. As it happens, “Safe London Streets: Our approach” does focus on behaviours endangering others, which we welcome. Nevertheless, this issue could be highlighted more. In particular, more priority should be given to the biggest source of danger – careless driving (“driving without due care and attention”), with raised levels of traffic law enforcement.
“Safe London Streets: Our approach” is a step forward for Transport for London, putting it ahead of previous documents on safety on the road, and certainly ahead of other Highway Authorities. Hopefully this can be progressed into a full-blown Road Danger Reduction approach.