Vision Zero – what’s wrong with Richard Allsopp’s critique of it

In the transport practitioner’s fortnightly journal Local Transport Today (Viewpoint, LTT 704), Professor Richard Allsopp – a key figure in Britain’s “road safety” establishment – made a critique of the “Vision Zero” movement. While we have some issues with the Vision Zero approach, we find it necessary to criticise Professor Allsopp’s article, featuring as it does some key features of “road safety” ideology. Here is our response as printed in Local Transport Today 705:-

“Richard Allsop is of course correct to state that: “people accept risk in return for what they see themselves as gaining from the activity” (ibid). The point – which is entirely absent from his article – is that some road users take risks at the expense of others. Broadly speaking, motorised road users impose danger on all other road users, whereas walkers and cyclists impose far less. Moreover, the non-motorised users suffer disproportionately from the risk imposed by the motorised.

To give an example, people who go mountain biking accept a degree of risk, because it is an enjoyable activity. However, the difference between mountain biking and on-road cycling really matters. The risks one accepts when mountain biking are entirely voluntary, whereas the risks one faces when cycling on the roads are largely imposed by others. In addition, the cyclist does not reciprocate by imposing an equivalent level of risk on the motorised.

This question – the Who Kills (or injures or endangers) Whom question – is ignored not just in Richard’s article but throughout official “road safety” ideology and practice. This leads to incorrect and misleading measures of safety (see my Viewpoint in LTT 635 15 Nov 2013), which hide the difference between harming oneself and harming others. It is both immoral and – because it compares unlike categories as if they were equal – unscientific.

Unlike this traditional “road safety” approach, Road Danger Reduction (RDR) addresses the issue of reducing danger at source , that is to say the (ab)use of motor vehicles, as the civilised way of making roads safer for all. Vision Zero has been promoted in the UK (unlike in Sweden) on a RDR basis, and as such we will support the measures it advocates.

And it is the measures taken that count. The Safe System approach Richard refers to includes “recognising the fallibility and frailty of road users and that collisions will continue to happen” – but how has that been put into practice? I argue that accommodating rule- and law-breaking behaviour by the motorised through highway engineering (felling roadside trees, laying anti-skid, erecting crash barriers etc.) and vehicle engineering (seat belts, crumple zones, side impact protection systems etc.) has exacerbated it.

Idiot-proofing the environment for the motorised has become part of the problem. Measures of this kind have shifted risk from those creating it onto those outside motor vehicles. When, as Richard notes, the Safe System approach “make(s) designers and users responsible jointly for the safety in the road system and its use” is that supposed to include “designers” making “users” less responsible?

Furthermore, the measures that “we” have taken include spontaneous adaptation by parents, who deny their children independent mobility, and by those willing but scared to take up cycling. In our view that should not be seen as progress, but the opposite.

Finally, I am intrigued by the chart comparing risk of death per hour spent using the roads versus “corresponding risk in the rest of everyday life”. Do these latter risks include those from: physical inactivity from using motorised transport instead of walking or cycling; noxious emissions; greenhouse gas emissions; allocation of funding to road building which could be diverted to health care? Again, we are discussing risks generated by motorised vehicle users that society in general suffers from. It may be the case that the Safe System approach aims to “align road safety management with wider economic, human and environmental goals” but in the RDR movement we would argue that “road safety” is aligned with a car-dependent outlook, and against the right kind of goals for transport policy.”

Dr Robert Davis, Chair, Road Danger Reduction Forum


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