After years of falls, road deaths are rising. In fact, they’re rising fast enough for the Department for Transport to pre-releasing figures and ministers to start getting their defence in early.
UK transport minister Robert Goodwill warned a parliamentary road safety conference last week to prepare for “bad news” ahead of Thursday’s announcement, telling attendees to expect a “rise” in road fatalities.
H.L. Mencken said: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” He could have been describing the UK’s road safety policy. This isn’t about a fall in the numbers of traffic police, this is about a road safety policy that has focused on what’s measurable rather than what’s important. And, worse, it has simplified the complexity of safe driving to priggish, dimity little slogans like ‘twenty’s plenty’ and ‘speed kills so kills your speed’.
What’s happened? We have cars and motorcycles with the most advanced passive safety ever. We’ve seen those passive safety features, like ABS and traction control, give us safer and safer roads. When drivers do get it wrong, we’ve got active safety that deploys airbags, pre-tensions seatbelts and stops cars being death traps.
Yet now we’re seeing fatalities and serious injuries rising.
The honest truth is that no-one really knows. And that’s because road safety has become a single issue game and the politicians and road safety groups are sat around with their fingers in their ears singing “la la la can’t hear you”.
Driving a car or riding a motorcycle is the most complex thing you’ll do today. Your level of observation, anticipation, evaluation of environmental and vehicle feedback and psychomotor skills would blindside any computer yet built. And that’s before you factor in your constant interactions with other drivers, evaluating their actions and planning for what they’ll do next.
Get on a motorcycle and it gets even more complex. Keep a machine upright through corners when it’s naturally unstable, plus all the other stuff.
Yet, according to current road safety policy, all we have to do to be safe is match a number on a dial to a number on a stick. And if we don’t, there are cameras of many different varieties to make sure we get slapped and our liberty curtailed. We’ve delegated the complexity of solving the road safety problem to a combination of yellow boxes on poles enforcing frequently changing, arbitrary speed limits on sticks.
It’s drive-by-numbers. And, like paint by numbers, it’s a dreadful, lumpy facsimile of the real thing.
Given the importance of speed limits, you would think, wouldn’t you, that the numbers on those sticks would be scientifically robust, backed up by hard evidence and – ideally – as close to physical absolutes as possible. It would be tragic to think that they’re simply set by your local councillor, terrified of losing votes, against the advice of the local police force.
But that’s what’s happening.
Why, despite millions spent on lower limits, cameras, bumps, humps and hardline speed-enforcement, are deaths not falling? Because we’ve decided that the complexity of real road safety is politically unacceptable. And we’ve replaced it with a sort of no-carrot-and-lots-of-stick donkey policy. Speed cameras are binary. You’re either legal or not. Safety doesn’t come into it. And if you’re illegal, you get a slap. We’ve traded safety for compliance.
Binary solutions don’t – and can’t – work with complex problems. And you can’t get the sort of behaviour we need from drivers if they’re constantly expecting a slap.
Speed is certainly a simple enough issue to address superficially. Put up cameras, paint them whatever colour you like, raise fines, put in new, ultra-low blanket speed limits, change them every half mile and propose stiff new penalties for exceeding them, then watch the accident figures tumble. Sadly, as we have seen today, they are not tumbling.
Speed cameras, traffic calming and lowered speed limits encourage the majority of drivers to think that it’s easy – by sticking to a limit they are safe – when nothing could be further from the truth. Poor drivers driving slowly crash at lower speeds – but they still crash and they still kill people. Do we believe this is acceptable?
We need to refocus the road safety debate away from speed limits and on to the much more complex and politically unpalatable subject of driver standards, education and training. It’s only when we recognise how complex the driving process is and educate all road users accordingly that we’ll stop killing people.