Road Danger Reduction

Road Danger Reduction versus “Road Safety”

Road danger reduction is the application of well-established principles of health and safety to reduce casualties in traffic crashes and create roads that feel safe for all road users.  In Britain, road danger reduction is still very much towards the fringe of  “road safety” practice, although the situation is slowly changing.

“Road safety” in Britain traditionally aped the American model of mass-motorisation to build a new kind of society: one in which luxuries like motor cars and suburban houses would be affordable to everyone. Anything not steel and motorised was an obstacle to progress.

Austrian road sign for US occupation forces, 1945.

The cost of mass motorisation in lives was on a warfare scale (and still is). To populations that had endured the Great Depression and WW2, perhaps the cost seemed modest. New generations grew up never having known anything but the all-pervading danger from motor traffic. Road danger became part of the landscape, like the weather. It just had to be accepted.

This attitude changed in some other countries much faster than it has in Britain. As described in this page, the Dutch got sick of dead children half a century ago and took measures to reduce road danger. In Britain, there were no large flows of cyclists by the end of the 1950s. Pedestrians could be fenced back. Children could be transported by car. There was no mass objection to traffic danger.  By the end of the 1980s, freedom for children was fading rapidly into history.

So, “road safety” in the UK evolved as a palliative to ease the consequences of road danger through an Orwellian inversion of reality: cyclists, child pedestrians, horse riders, all became “dangerous” problems to be solved. Motor traffic was the solution. Such a value system cannot deliver safer roads. It cannot deliver broad choices for travel. It can deliver only what it has delivered: endemic traffic congestion; obesity; environments too dangerous to permit children freedom. It serves no interest group, ironically least of all those who wish to travel by car.

Real Road Safety

Road danger reduction applies the Hierarchy of Hazard Controls to achieve safer roads. This is a fancy way of saying that to solve a problem you must address the root of the problem. Our problem is that large streams of motor vehicles travel at dangerous speeds in our living places. So that is the problem we solve.

The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls is a well-established process for achieving the highest practicable level of safety in a potentially dangerous environment. It is an agenda of actions, starting with the most effective and proceeding through to the least effective (which are only adopted if adequate safety has not been achieved by preceding steps). The hierarchy is:

  • Eliminate the hazard (no hazard, no risk)
  • Substitute the hazard for a lesser hazard (amelioration)
  • Engineering controls (such as physical barriers)
  • Administrative controls (such as training or signage)
  • Protective equipment (helmets, hi-viz clothing)

The Heath and Safety Executive (HSE) applies the Hierarchy as the basis of industrial safety. Indeed, the Hierarchy has been applied across the world to achieve safe travel by air, sea and rail, as well as safe chemical works and refineries. Crashes and explosions do occasionally happen of course, generally in circumstances where the Hierarchy was not rigorously applied, or not applied at all. It may surprise you to know that HSE inspectors take a dim view of helmets and high-viz clothing. They will question why more effort was not made to create a safe environment.

Road Danger Reduction in Britain

At present, it can best be said that road danger reduction progresses in this country by staying under the radar. A recent article by the insurance company ETA described road danger reduction as the “third rail of politics”; ready to fry any politician that touches it. The article points out the disgraceful sentencing practices in cases of negligent drivers who kill. There is indeed no doubt that institutional apathy to traffic deaths parallels – and possibly causes – public apathy to traffic deaths. The charity RoadPeace has worked since 1992 to reform the sentencing of drivers who kill or main through dangerous or careless driving. Despite a number of reforms, the current situation is that prosecutions have fallen sharply in the last few years, almost certainly due to resource cuts rather than a reduction in bad driving. Traffic deaths have not fallen sharply in recent years (they have increased).

The Road Danger Reduction Forum was formed in 1993. It promotes awareness of the value of road danger reduction and criticises the expedient thinking behind much of what passes for “road safety” currently. The RDRF has championed the initiative by West Midlands Police to stop and educate drivers on the appropriate passing distance when overtaking a cyclist. This initiative has spread to a few other police forces.

The Road Share Campaign has pressed for a number of years for the introduction of Presumed Liability legislation.  Tellingly, the UK is amongst the few European countries not to have such legislation to protect the interests of vulnerable road users injured by motor traffic. Cyprus, Malta, Romania and Ireland are the others.

All of the major cycling organisations (British Cycling, Cycling UK and Sustrans) campaign for road danger reduction measures.

The Journal of Transport and Health recently published a special issue devoted to road danger reduction.

All of the above actions are based on individuals or non-profit organisations taking the initiative, that is, they are strictly bottom-up. Top-down road danger reduction from  state institutions is limited, and exhibits reluctance. 20 mph zones have been possible since 1990. To begin with, each scheme had to be approved by the Secretary of State. Their creation is still at the discretion of the local authority. This doubtless explains why adoption has been slow.  Little effort is made to enforce 20 mph speed limits in areas lacking physical speed restraints like speed bumps.

Heavy good vehicles (HGV’s) represent a high risk to cyclists (and pedestrians). Indeed, they are a risk to all road users. HGV’s account for only 2% of urban traffic, but 11% of urban traffic deaths happen in crashes involving an HGV. For rural non-motorway roads, HGV’s account for 5% of traffic, but 15% of deaths are in crashes involving an HGV (ref Table ras30017 of RRCGB). This issue is more complicated than can be detailed here. It is fair to summarise that measures to  reduce HGV blind spots through design could be implemented nationally, but are only being introduced gradually in London, on the initiative of the London Mayor Sadiq Khan. Local authorities already have power to limit HGV access to urban areas. These are rarely applied. The UK government has permitted higher HGV speed limits on rural roads (“because most drivers were breaching the speed limits anyway”), and increases in HGV length. CyclingUK has produced a comprehensive briefing on HGV’s and safety.

The sluggish interest in lower urban traffic speeds, general indifference to rural speeding, servility to commercial vested interests, combined with the abiding problem of inadequate sentencing of dangerous or bad driving, all manifest a state of apathy. A search for “road danger reduction” on the site returned not a single hit (the most relevant result was “Check if a vehicle is taxed”).

What Needs to Happen

Unfortunately current official and public attitudes to road danger are not supportive either of normalized cycling or of active travel generally. The fundamental problem is reluctance to place the responsibility for road danger on those who create it. Therefore responsibility rests on harmless road users, cyclists and pedestrians, who have not consented to be endangered. Personally, I am sceptical much can be achieved in active travel unless this subsidy for motor vehicles is significantly reduced. Better cycle routes will help, but it must be remembered that pedestrians already have comprehensive networks. These do not make urban roads safe for children.

Recent years have seen greater genuine commitment to cycling by British transport ministers. The recently released “Future of Mobility: Urban Strategy” features cycling prominently on its cover. There have been increases in funding for cycling. Will such funding survive the next recession? Will sentencing practices be reformed? Will “road safety” come to mean “road danger reduction”?

Only time will tell.