Driving

“Simple, neat and wrong.”

After years of falls, road deaths have stopped falling.  In fact, in previous years they’ve 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.

Now, in 2019, the Transport Select Committee is…

…concerned that progress increasing levels of road safety has levelled off and is launching an inquiry to scrutinise the Government’s approach to road safety, last set out in its 2015 road safety statement. The inquiry will investigate which changes would be most effective at reducing the number and severity of road traffic accidents.

And the EU are talking about the compulsory fitting of satellite-controlled speed limiters (Intelligent Speed Adaptation – ISA – even though it’s anything but intelligent) to cars from 2020.  The UK says it will comply and do likewise.

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 Continue reading

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Driving, Riding

Splat the rat

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Most councils use conflict-based ‘traffic calming’ schemes as speed reduction measures and to discourage drivers from using certain roads.  They call roads like these – the roads people use to get to work, to go shopping and home to their families – ‘rat runs’.

In my own village in West Oxfordshire we have had ‘calming’ imposed on each of the four ‘rat runs’ into the village.  The reason?  Pressure from some residents that traffic was too fast.  Accident history certainly didn’t give a reason for engineering measures – 12 injury accidents in 5 years, not one speed-related – but ‘fear of speeding traffic’ was significant enough to justify pinch-points and chicanes.

Not so calm

It seems Bampton’s calming caused more crashes in its first six months than the entire village had seen in six years.  It certainly caused many column-inches and minutes of airtime discussion in the local press. Even years later there’s still plenty of evidence of conflict – broken glass, bits of bodywork and scraped posts in the traffic calming.  And residents still say speeding traffic is a problem.

The road safety results?  Well, we don’t know.  No surveys were carried out before the calming was imposed, so it’s hard to measure.  

Calming-caused crashes?

Crawley, another rural West Oxfordshire village, has no history of speed-related crashes, but ‘fear of traffic’ was a concern for some residents.  The County Council installed the scheme of urbanised concrete, posts, lights, signs and humps you can see in the pictures.  They also imposed more bumps, a chicane and narrowing on the tight hills leaving the village. 

Approaching, it’s impossible to see if it’s safe to start driving through the chicanes. That’s because they’re designed to force drivers onto the blind side of the road into the face of unseen oncoming traffic. And, just to make sure they don’t make it through the new hazards quickly, the bumps slow them down and keep them exposed to danger for the maximum length of time. 

The new Crawley scheme was quick in claiming its first victim – just a few days after it was imposed.  You can see the results in the pictures. 

What’s the problem?

Conflict-based calming in action.

Conflict-based calming in action.

These schemes rely on bringing road users into conflict. They could almost have been designed deliberately to cause maximum aggression; clearly telling one set of drivers that they have right of way, then forcing other drivers into their path.  It doesn’t slow traffic down, it just promotes tension, aggression and conflict – completely unnecessarily and with absolutely no benefit.

That’s because conflict narrows and concentrates drivers’ perception and observation to dealing with the conflict – not driving safely.  For one group it becomes all about getting their vehicles over the hump, through the chicane and past the road furniture without having an accident.  For the other group, it means forcibly insisting on their right of way by speeding up, driving aggressively straight at opposing vehicles, hooting and gesturing. Perfect for ensuring that both sets of road users are agitated, aggressive and distracted as they drive through villages.

Politics over safety

One wonders whether the politicisation of road safety might be largely to blame.  After all, a councillor faced with a committee of residents railing about ‘fear of speeding traffic’ wants to do the right thing and help.  This means he must do something and, more importantly, be seen to be doing something.  Ideally, “something” for many residents means a scheme that is perceived to punish those horrid drivers who speed through our village – whilst leaving us free to speed through theirs. 

In fact, shared space schemes would be far more effective in reducing speeds and enhancing the environment.  That’s because they don’t promote aggression and conflict – they promote ambiguity in which road users have to negotiate their way safely as equals.  Shared space does away with the forests of shouty signs, urban concrete and jarring humps – the visual cues road users rely on to know what they should do – and makes the environment more natural and ambiguous.  Ambiguity has the opposite effect to conflict; drivers slow down and observe more widely as they search for visual cues.  Each group is equally discomfited by it, so no-one can aggressively insist on their ‘rights’.   

As Hans Monderman, architect of the shared space concept in Holland, argued:

“Who has the right of way? I don’t care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.”

Perhaps it’s time to stop promoting conflict and one-size-fits-all urban ugliness.  Instead, we could look at schemes that not only enhance villages but make them safer and more pleasant too. 

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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, 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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