I have tweeted about the current campaign by the FIA (the international motorists’ organisation) using Formula One racing drivers to tell children to wear hi-viz clothing when walking. It’s had a lot of re-tweeting and comments, not least directed at practitioners with a road safety remit . For some of us, this is just a matter of sighing that “you couldn’t make it up”. Others have argued that there is no evidence that campaigns like this will actually protect children. For many this is just a seasonal irritation – or even a partially useful intervention – to be accepted while we try to get on with the business of real road safety – reducing danger at source.
But we believe that this kind of intervention tells us a lot about what is going wrong – and what needs to change – if we are to have a civilised approach to road safety.
Formula One racer Jenson Button
The politics of what I have called “the conspicuity con” is dealt with in Chapter 9 of my “Death on the Streets: cars and the mythology of road safety” (1992) . (Downloadable here/)
Here I discuss how this kind of “road safety” initiative is not just without an evidence base, but actually becomes part of the problem it is supposed to deal with.
Mikael Colville-Andersen gives an interesting account of how “road safety” personnel push hi-viz in his son’s school. Mikael rightly reports the lack of evidence to show actual reductions in casualty rates as a result of this kind of programme. There is one rather ropey Norwegian study referred to, but even the UK Department of Transport has indicated that there is a lack of evidence to justify hi-viz for cyclists. Mikael states – correctly – that people genuinely concerned with safety on the road should deal with what he calls “the bull in the china shop“, namely danger from motorised traffic, which they don’t.
But it is worse than that. I would argue that a key reason why motorists feel they can get away with bad driving is the “Sorry Mate I Didn’t See You” (SMIDSY) excuse. (See the CyclingUK campaign against SMIDSY).And this excuse is facilitated by precisely the kind of campaigns which put the onus of responsibility to “Be Seen” on the least dangerous to others, rather than requiring those who are dangerous to others to watch out for their potential victims.
The most basic rule of safe driving, in the Highway Code and elsewhere, is to “Never drive in such a way that you cannot stop within visible distance“. But this is eroded, not just by failure to have proper speed limits and ensure compliance with them, but by the assumption that if motorists don’t “see” their victims, it is the victims’ fault. Whether by lengthening sight lines or other measures, the underlying belief system thrusts the onus of risk on to motorists’ actual or potential victims. It is not just a lack of speed control, or the failure to weed out motorists who can’t see where they are going. It is a general culture – promoted by the “road safety” industry – that you don’t have to fulfil a responsibility to properly watch out for those you may hurt or kill.
Looking, watching out – and then seeing
I emphasise “watching out for” because what is required is a thorough process where drivers consider the possible future positions of those they may drive into, think about their need to avoid doing so, and drive accordingly. The image of a pedestrian or cyclist on the retina of the driver is just the first part of this process. And the key element is searching – watching out or looking out – for these people in the first place. It is an active process which is far more effective than any amount of hi-viz, which may be irrelevant anyway. I am regularly told by motorists that they see plenty of cyclists without lights at night. Indeed: if they are driving properly (albeit in an urban area with street lighting) they will indeed see unlit cyclists.
Let me be quite clear about this. My argument is not just that this is rather unsavoury victim-blaming and morally objectionable. It is that it exacerbates the very problem it claims to address. In ten years or so these young people may become drivers, with the expectation that others should shoulder the responsibility that they as drivers have.
The official “road safety” response to this criticism is to avoid it. The typical answer is this: “Of course, motorists should watch where they are going, and we may have an advertising campaign to politely ask them to do so, but in the meantime wear hi-viz”. The problem with this is twofold: firstly, this “in the meantime” has been going on for over a century of motorists endangering, hurting and killing others, and that polite requests aren’t going to change anything. But the second point is the more important: the relentless shifting of responsibility away from those endangering others becomes part of the problem.
Why not use Formula One racing drivers positively?
There is a sense in which Formula One drivers could be usefully put to work for a safer road environment. They are role models for young men who are already driving, and a message could be got across that fast driving should be left for the race track. Simple messages such as “Don’t break the speed limit on the road – it’s there for a reason” could be widely disseminated at race meetings. The basic rule about never driving in such a way that you can’t stop within visible distance could be pushed. If there is to be a focus on children’s safety, the Formula One stars could visit schools and talk to the parents driving children to school.
In fact, there are quite a few ways in which these drivers could be used to address the problems of inappropriate driving. I understand that very often they are prepared to engage in campaigns without demanding fees. But in a crucial sense that is not the point. We have to ask: What is actually going on here?
The significance of these campaigns
The task of the road danger reduction movement includes deconstructing the basic cultural assumptions which most of us unwittingly accept. I argue that using people who are role models is an important way in which basic – often negative and dangerous – ideas are subtly inculcated into young minds. It is worth repeating that the young people being targeted will gradually come to assume that it is the task of people outside cars to “be seen”, whether or not drivers are capable of, willing to and actually looking where they are going and watching out for other road users.
This is not a conspiracy theory – it’s actually a sociological analysis (the opposite of such ways of looking at social phenomena). Although we might argue for the Formula One drivers to be used, for example, to challenge the overly fast driving of young motorists, that is only one aspect of this issue. We also need to analyse the widely held beliefs (including our own) which constitute the background assumptions about safety, and challenge them when necessary. None of this means that pedestrians and cyclists should wear camouflage. But we do need to critically consider the often unspoken beliefs which our society has, and challenge them where necessary.