Career into Road Safety

Career into Road Safety

When I was a small boy back in the late 1960’s, there was nothing unusual about even quite young children  getting around by bike. As teenagers in the mid-1970’s, we used our bikes as basic transport. We did not have to rely on parents to take us to see each other, or go to the cinema, or to parties.  None of this was regarded as dangerous, or at least, not more dangerous than any other freedom for children in a world of increasingly pervasive motor traffic. Of course, there were risks, indeed, risks that were high by today’s standards. However, danger tends to be perceived against a backdrop of commonly accepted hazards. My strong impression from that time was an onslaught of crashes and injuries following the commencement of driving by my peers. That perception was correct. However, over the last forty years there has been a progressive trend to view cycling as dangerous. This perception is flawed. It has been the core of my research to expose the erroneous thinking that gave rise to incorrect perceptions of risk in cycling.

Towards the end of the 1990’s, I grew increasingly aware the policy engine of government was running pretty rough on cycling. For the first time in my life, I began to take a serious interest in politics: how policies are formed, why the process can go wrong. It became sadly clear to me that both government and academia are alarmingly vulnerable to faults arising from institutional ignorance and stereotyping.

The subsequent twenty years have taught me that changing bad policy demands enormous and sustained effort, although it does eventually happen if enough people get involved. There is no doubt that official attitudes to cycling have undergone a revolution over the last two decades, and especially in the last five years. I would like to think the research I published contributed at least a bit to that welcome turn-around.

Thoughts from Being a Designer of Very Dangerous Things.

For fifteen years, my day job was in the gas industry, latterly as a consulting engineer responsible for the design of recondite but mission-critical plant. For example, I was lead mechanical and process designer for the rebuilding of the Stornoway LPG plant, which supplies propane to the town of Stornoway on the Island of Lewis. I was also lead designer for major enhancements to the Wick LNG plant, which supplies the local town with natural gas.

This career experience provided a counterpoint to my private interest in cycling. In particular, why have decades of traditional “road safety” not made the roads amenable for walking or cycling? It has to be recognised that traditional “road safety” is a political and social construct.   It is unrelated to real safety, as practised by the Health and Safety Executive and all other industrial safety authorities.

Working as an engineer, I am obliged, on pain of imprisonment, to comply with extensive legislation controlling the danger to the public from large installations full of explosive gas. The onus rests absolutely on the source of danger to control that danger. That is exactly as it should be.

The fundamental principles of real safety are well established. They have been applied to the design and operation of industrial complexes, power stations, and every type of transportation except road transport. That is why we have safe air travel, safe chemical plants, safe railways, but the safety of our roads is notoriously ambiguous: safe-ish for some, but not safe for all.

The principles of real safety are prioritised in order of effectiveness by the Hierarchy of Hazard Controls :

  • Identify sources of danger and eliminate them
  • Substitute a lesser danger, if it cannot be eliminated
  • Engineered measures, such as barriers
  • Administrative measures, such as training and signage
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as helmets and high-viz jackets, although only if risk assessment shows residual risk to be unacceptably high

Contrary to what you might think, the Health and Safety Executive is not keen on people wearing helmets and high visibility clothing. PPE is not effective relative to eliminating the danger on the first place. That is why HSE inspectors will observe PPE with a sceptical eye, and ask why more effort was not made to create an inherently safe environment.

In contrast, what has traditionally passed as  “road safety” is the inverse of that: danger from motor traffic is considered a natural phenomenon that just has to be accepted. Victims of road danger are accepted as regrettable but legitimate casualties (that is, they are “just accidents”) with disturbing parallels to wartime casualties. The “solution” has been to withdraw potential victims from public roads, or corral them behind steel railings, or pressure them to wear PPE. This traditionalist view prioritises motor traffic danger over people: it turns the Hierarchy upside down! Little wonder that perceived danger has increased over time.

Traditionalist “road safety” thinking is still with us, although it is encouraging to see important shifts of emphasis towards slower traffic speeds and volumes. The public health price of car dependency is becoming all too alarmingly clear, especially to the government, which has to foot the bill. The UK state is increasingly serious about transferring at least local, routine trips to cycling and walking. These are inherently safe and healthy means of transport. Slowly but surely, “road safety” is drifting towards the Hierarchy of Hazard Controls.

There is an awfully long lag between changes in policy and the effects appearing in daily life, but I think it is fair to say the process has begun.