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Without tackling car culture we won’t make headway with road danger reduction

Road danger Reduction Forum

Robert Davis
19 July 2019

Last week Lord Berkeley retired after 26 years as President of the Road Danger Reduction Forum (RDRF). So what has been achieved since we were set up in 1993? Is road danger being properly addressed? And, since governance of policy on safety on the road is always part of wider transport policy, is the way our society views transport what we need for the 21st century? Despite some positive developments, the answer for both is no.

So what is the road danger reduction (RDR) agenda? Following publication of my book Death on the Streets: Cars and the mythology of road safety in 1992, a conference in Leeds was organised to outline the “new agenda” in road safety, where a group of transport professionals invented the phrase “road danger reduction”. A key concern was that the “road safety” establishment’s metric for success – aggregated deaths or casualty numbers – was deeply flawed. We knew that the reduction of casualties could be attributed to spontaneous change, or migration of the more vulnerable (and benign) mode users from the highway environment, and that at the very least casualty reduction could be better achieved by reducing danger at source – from the (mis)use of motorised vehicles. 

The academic basis, such as John Adams’ reading of “the Smeed curve”, was robust. All we had to do was state the obvious to politicians: reported killed and serious injury (KSI) casualties are not the same as, and may be inversely related to, actual danger. Everybody knows a busy gyratory system that may have few reported pedestrian and cycling KSIs precisely because the danger at such locations inhibits people from cycling and walking there. “Real road safety” – or road danger reduction – states this.

There are two key components to the RDR approach. Firstly, we emphasise that we all adapt to our perceptions of danger. Sometimes this “risk compensation” can have negative consequences: parents preventing their children from independent travel because of road danger, or the increases in motor danger (initially leading to increases in pedestrian deaths) from compulsory seat belt legislation. Sometimes it can be good – an increased tendency of drivers to watch out with greater traffic congestion intensity or the increased presence of cyclists in some urban areas (“Safety in Numbers”). 

Secondly, there is the “Who Kills (or hurts or endangers) Whom?” question. The “road safety” industry has spent 100 years covering up the essential difference in potential lethality between different transport modes. In other safety regimes it would be usual to concentrate on those posing the greatest potential danger to others before seeing those they endanger as the problem, but not with “road safety”. We have accordingly drawn attention to attempts to measure danger to others (such as here: https://tinyurl.com/y6c4bqxu).

This focus shows the essential moral difference between road safety and road danger reduction. For us the fact of endangering, hurting or killing others is fundamentally different from being endangered, hurt or killed. The road safety industry obscures this fact.

Indeed, if we were just totting up deaths due to the current road transport system, we would consider noxious emissions, inactive travel, climate change or simply the investment in motor transport, which could be spent on health care. Each one of these will either come close to or dwarf the numbers of life years lost due to KSIs. 

Which brings us to transport policy: unlike the road safety industry, embedded in successive governments’ accommodation (or encouragement) of increased motor traffic, road danger reduction aims to reduce motor vehicle usage for environmental, social, and public health reasons.

So where are we now? Organisations supporting cycling, walking and road crash victims have embraced road danger reduction since the 1990s, and the current Mayor of London’s transport strategy  stresses road danger reduction. Nevertheless, central government seems to be stuck in the old paradigm. As recently as 2012, the road safety and cycling ministers argued that the Netherlands had a worse record on cyclist safety than the UK – by measuring it in cycling casualties per head of the population. Obviously casualties per journey were lower in the Netherlands, with the higher figure per head of population due to far, far higher levels of cycling. Use the right metrics!

With transport policy we have had consistent warnings about induced demand from road building, congestion, health disbenefits to users of motor transport, noxious emissions, global heating, loss of local community, and the massive financial costs of these “external costs”, for some decades. Some of them led to John Prescott’s famous commitment to reduce motor traffic – a claim swiftly dropped after he took power. Targets for increased amounts of cycling have been made since the early 1990s, and rapidly disappeared.

Essentially we have politicians unwilling to challenge the idea that there is a ‘right’ to drive when, how and why drivers want...

On the plus side, with road danger reduction enforcement we have West Midlands Police’s road harm prevention team setting the gold standard. We have a reasonable target for motor traffic reduction in the London mayor’s transport strategy – but only by 2041.

Essentially we have politicians unwilling to challenge the idea that there is a “right” to drive where, when, how and why drivers want – and to not pay the true cost for this. The key task for practitioners is to make this clear to their employers, and to show why motor traffic (including by electric vehicles) needs to be reduced, and how: the costs of motoring (and road traffic law enforcement with deterrent sentencing) need to be increased, with parking and on-carriageway space for motoring cut. 

This basically requires cultural change. It’s not impossible: other countries similar to ours have reduced motor traffic and/or increased cycle use in cities, have better public transport, and driver behaviour better attuned to the needs of other road users such as cyclists. We in the road danger reduction movement think there is no other civilised way forward.  

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