It is nice to see Phil Goodwin (4x4 drivers should be made to feel more insecure, LTT 14 December 2006) describe how motorists who are better protected from injury after a crash will adapt by driving less carefully. I remember discussing the issue with him nearly 20 years ago, and it might be worth reviewing what has happened since.
Not a lot. Although adaptive behaviour, risk compensation, accident migration or whatever you want to call it is an obvious fact of human nature, you won’t get acceptance of the idea among decision makers. After all, the bad news for adaptive behaviour by people in increasingly crashworthy cars is mainly just bad news for those of us outside those cars walking and cycling – and we know how important we are in transport policy. Indeed, I might make the suggestion that more dangerous behaviour by those in “safer” cars has only got back on the agenda because even the ordinary motorist now feels victimised by 4x4 drivers in what are often the “safest” tanks (sorry, cars) on the road. I doubt that Professor Goodwin, speaking at a conference run by the Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety (PACTS), will find that PACTS sponsors Volvo will be willing to support him in working through the implications of his talk.
Or one could take an example from the current issue of LTT (Safety researchers study 7,000 kms of UK’s roads, p.3 LTT 4 – 17th January). Here we read that “road safety experts” employed by the AA Motoring Trust (now the IAM Motoring trust Ed.) – not an unbiased body – will be, among other things, assessing two ways in which roads are “unsafe”.
Firstly, they will be looking at how “well” traffic is separated to stop motorists driving into each other. Progressive highway and safety engineers have spent some years considering how to control danger from motorists by doing the exact opposite of providing “well” separated lanes and showing how bringing lanes closer together can compel motorists to drive more carefully.
Secondly, they will be examining how “well” drivers are protected from poles, signs and trees when they leave the road, something which “road safety experts” appear to regard as perfectly acceptable behaviour.
Do we have to accept an agenda written not just based on a view through the motorist’s windscreen, but by the rule and/or law- breaking (I believe it is still illegal to drive at speed off the carriageway), careless, criminally negligent or downright dangerous driver’s windscreen? Do we not see that this nonsense about roads being “unsafe” is not so much bad workmen blaming their tools, but the toolbox they are kept in as well?
Of course, motoring is the one area of life where ordinary adults can forget about how they fail in their responsibilities, whether in terms of a destroyed global or local environment, a variety of public health problems or massive financial cost. So it is hardly surprising that motorists expect to be able to behave like babies whose mothers will protect them from their various follies when it comes to them threatening other people’s lives. But do we have to collude with this violence quite so much? I think the answer is no.
It is not too fanciful to consider the possibility of fully computer controlled cars – after all, fully speed governed cars controlled by road side beacons are clearly a technological possibility. If motorists are unable to consider this in order to provide psychological gratification – a motoring correspondent recently lambasted such moves for taking the fun out of driving – then other controls are required. On-board black boxes and related technologies can assess blame for collisions allowing deterrent sentencing for those responsible.
And if we have accepted that motorists are so inherently incompetent and/or unwilling to drive properly, a legal system which assumes that collisions involving motorists on the one hand , and pedestrians or cyclists on the other, are offences of strict liability with responsibility resting on the motorist.
We could do all kinds of things. There are all sorts of law enforcement areas, backed up by deterrent sentencing, which might well prove popular with at least the more law abiding motorist. A lot of drivers are prepared to behave more responsibly.
But whatever they are, accountability for those endangering others should be on the agenda. I really don’t want to wait another twenty years for Phil Goodwin to state the obvious yet again, and politely suggest that it might be an idea if something were done about it.