Driving

What happens if your speedo breaks?

Imagine.  You’re driving – or riding – along and suddenly your speedometer breaks.  The dial in front of you suddenly reads zero and the needle’s not moving. You have absolutely no idea what speed you’re travelling at.

One question…

Can you still drive safely?

A 1967 Volvo Amazon speedometer and dashboard, with a straight, clear road ahead.

What happens when your speedo breaks?

The answer’s rather obvious, isn’t it?  There are probably not too many people who would stop immediately and put in a panic call to the AA.  And if they did, I suspect they’d be more concerned with legality than safety.  After all, no-one wants a £100 fine and a brown envelope through the post.

But if you can drive safely and you’re no more likely to crash or hit a pedestrian with no speedo, why do we place such a reliance on speed limits as road safety tools?  And why do we now talk about speed limits with an almost talismanic reverence?

This is from the South Yorkshire Safety Camera partnership:

You can help us to achieve our aim – and reduce the number of deaths and collisions on our roads. All you have to do is keep to the speed limit.

The Tayside Safety Camera partnership says:

Check your speedometer as frequently as you check your mirrors.

On many of Britain’s roads, where speed limits change as rapidly as the numbers on a fruit machine, drivers are constantly matching the number on their speedo to the number on the stick.  The Slower Speeds Initiative reinforces the case for ‘driving by numbers’ and quotes a TRL study that as little as a 1mph reduction in average speeds can reduce crashes by 5%.

But if a duff speedo is no impediment to safe driving, what is it instead?  If you can still drive safely with no speedo, that leaves the whole question of speed limits and their hardline and automated enforcement rather hanging.

Isn’t this a case of making what’s measurable important rather than measuring what’s important?  And, as a consequence, of mistaking compliance for safety?

I’d argue that we’ve taken relative speed and attempted to make it absolute, backed it with threats of prosecution, then reduced and reduced limits until they’ve become risible.  Leslie Hore-Belisha (who set the 30 limit in 1935) intended limits to reflect the behaviour of the majority.  People drove at 30mph – near as dammit – because it felt ‘right’ for urban roads.  We already know that people drive closer to 20mph on narrow residential streets without 20mph limits.  So it’s not those absolute, nicely round numbers making them safe, it’s the speed relative to their surroundings.

Speed limits are not physical absolutes.  By treating them as such, we’ve returned to the situation that led Stanley Buckmaster in 1931 to revoke them altogether and say “…the existing speed limit was so universally disobeyed that its maintenance brought the law into contempt.”  Of course, Lord Buckmaster didn’t have fleets of camera vans and digital camera technology to make sure the law was enforced.

So we’re back where we started – being concerned with legality rather than safety.  You could drive perfectly safely with no speedometer, but you couldn’t drive legally.  That means we’ve simply equated compliance with safety and backed it with ‘big stick’ automated enforcement.

Driving by numbers.  The same principle as “paint by numbers” but a great deal more dangerous.

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Driving

“Simple, neat and wrong.”

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.

Minster Lovell calming crash Sept 6 09-1

Yet now we’re seeing fatalities and serious injuries rising.

Why?

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.

 

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Driving, Riding

Dolores Umbridge. Now in charge of speed limit policy.

Speeding fines handed out by courts are hitting a new high.  In 2013, nearly 115,000 drivers waited while a magistrate looked down, wagged a reproving finger and dished out an average £169 fine and three points.  In 2012, failing to match the number on the stick to the number on the dial accounted for 56% of the 730,000 fixed penalty notices drivers received – and cameras provided the evidence for 84% of them.

If you haven’t had a speeding fine yet, your odds of picking one up are shortening daily.

Why?

The press today says it’s all the fault of new, digital cameras.  Sure, they won’t make things any easier for drivers – but the real problem is Department for Transport-imposed, artificially lower speed limits.  And you probably didn’t even notice.

Unless you spend your time poring over the intricacies of Department for Transport Circulars, you won’t have spotted one snappily entitled Department for Transport Circular 01/2013 crawling into the light of day in January 2013.  It changed the way drivers and riders use the UK’s roads for ever.  And it’s opened the door to a massive increase in speeding prosecutions. In fact, it criminalised hundreds of thousands of previously safe, law-abiding drivers at a stroke.

Van crashes into speed camera

Speed cameras save lives. Apparently.

That dull, dusty document is so full of weaseling that it would make Dolores Umbridge blush.  In true, Umbridgeian fashion, it starts so reasonably that not even the most petrolheaded speed junkie could object:

“Speed limits should be evidence-led and self-explaining and seek to reinforce people’s assessment of what is a safe speed to travel. They should encourage self-compliance. Speed limits should be seen by drivers as the maximum rather than a target speed.”

Then, it works its way through suggesting that drivers should be “encouraged” to drive below the speed limit as a matter of course, before sneaking the bomb in at point 35:

35. Mean speed and 85th percentile speed (the speed at or below which 85% of vehicles are travelling) are the most commonly used measures of actual traffic speed. Traffic authorities should continue to routinely collect and assess both, but mean speeds should be used as the basis for determining local speed limits.

Doesn’t sound terribly significant, does it?  Mean, schmean.  So what?  It’s actually the most significant change in road safety policy since the introduction of speed limits themselves.  Apologies for the history lesson, but the context is important…

Speed limits used to be set by measuring the natural speed of traffic along a given road in free-flowing conditions. You then assumed that 15% of the drivers were going too fast and set the limit at the 85th percentile. Limits were designed to reflect the idea that most drivers were responsible – otherwise why let them have licences in the first place?

The majority drove around the limit speed because, in effect, the majority set it.  Circular 01/13 put an end to all that.  And, in fact, even The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) advised against it.

It made limits so artificially low that nearly every road where the new limits have been applied feels too slow – like the limit is a mistake.  Drivers lose attention, drift off into reverie and cease being engaged with driving.  Failing that, they look for the first available overtake, tailgate the limit-limpet in front of them and lose their sense in a red mist of frustration overtakes.

That means – for most drivers – they now need to spend an excessive amount of concentration simply on limit compliance.  “Well, if they don’t speed, they won’t get a ticket, will they?” tut the prigs.  But when compliance and safety move so far apart, the limits become risible.  Today, sticking to the limit doesn’t make you safe, it makes you an oddity.  When I comply, I’m tailgated, flashed, hooted, overtaken on bends and with oncoming traffic.

More damaging; the better driver you are, the more the new limits punish you.  If you’re used to observing well ahead, planning your drive or ride and anticipating the actions of other road users, you might as well not bother.  You’ll spend more time thinking about what you cook for supper than the road ahead.  They’re so artificially low that you could climb into the back seat, have a quick snooze, make a coffee and still be back in time to brake for any unexpected hazards.

As a consequence, drivers and riders are losing respect for limits.  As they rollercoaster on a single road from 20 to 30 to 40 to 30 to 20 to 40 to 50 to (briefly) 60 and back to 30, they’re driving by a blizzard of numbers, up and down like an MP’s expenses claim.  It’s like paint by numbers; a bad facsimile of the real thing.  But very, very much more dangerous.

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Driving

£300k for a 0.85mph speed reduction?

You might have spotted that Oxford now has a blanket 20mph limit.  You might also have spotted the hacked-off Transit van hugging your rear bumper, flashing his full beam and leaning on the horn as you attempt to comply.  That’s SO much fun when you’re on a motorcycle on the city’s wet, diesely roads.

But the limits aren’t just dangerous, pointless and ugly – they’re expensive.  £300k according to last week’s Oxford Mail – enough to keep eight libraries open.  And for what?  Well, according to the stats I saw from a Freedom of Information request, the new limits have achieved an average reduction of, er. 0.85mph.  The council spreadsheet had even rounded that up to 0.9mph.  Still, one must take 0.05mph where one can get it. Continue reading

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Driving

Flash, bang, wallop. Again.

So it would seem that Oxfordshire County Council are about to turn on the speed cameras again, just a few months after they were turned off.  I wonder why?

I suspect yesterday evening’s BBC news story explains a lot.  The bulletin featured a 9 year old girl from Nuneham Courtney explaining that she wanted drivers to be safe as they drove through her village.  For her, this meant them slowing down – and she thought a camera was the best way to make sure they did.  She was eloquent, clear and clearly cared about safety and her village.  Some shots of roadside “speed kills” posters drawn by local school children, then I was on.  Middle aged, grey-haired fat bloke with an argument that explained how driving is a complex thing and suggesting speed cameras were too blunt in the way they work. Continue reading

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Driving

Training is bad for you. Apparently.

This year sees crashes at their lowest level since records began. We’re killing fewer people than ever – although the rate of fall has slowed markedly since the mid 1990s. Cars have airbags, side-impact bars, seatbelt pre-tensioners, anti-submarine seats, ABS, TCS, TSB, SOS and probably even BBC too. If your car looks after you so well, why does anyone still need to bother getting trained? Continue reading

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Driving

In speed camera land, numbers mean what we like

It’s pretty clear that there are a lot of people who don’t like speed cameras.  I’m one of them.  But my objections are based on what I’ve observed by training drivers and riders.  I think I know what makes people safe and what makes them dangerous.  By and large, compliance with a posted speed limit does not come into either category.  I’ve trained plenty of dangerous drivers who’d never exceed a limit and plenty of fine ones who would – happily.

So a great deal of speed camera policy stands or falls on the stats.  And there lies a rather large problem.  Here’s why… Continue reading

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