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Safety risk management for active travel – a barrier or an enabler?

Fraser Arnot, Atkins UK Technical Authority for Active Travel and John-Paul Doherty, Atkins UK Technical Authority for Operational Safety of Highways, examine how safety risk management can be used to improve active travel infrastructure  

24 October 2022


The UK is on the cusp of an active travel revolution; taking its lead from more established approaches across Europe and beyond.

This revolution is driven by various national agendas, including climate change and health, supported by national and regional policies and significant increases in infrastructure funding across the UK.

Fraser and John-Paul will be speaking at the Walking and Cycling Innovations event on 2 Nov in Manchester. Register here

This change has been long expected by the industry. However, Covid-19 has sped up the need for change, making it an area that requires a rapid response from technical disciplines across the civil engineering industry. We must also respond to the challenge of meeting tight funding programmes to deliver innovative and high-quality infrastructure.

Safety in operation is a crucial element of the success of any highway scheme and something that should be of utmost importance. It is one of the 5 key design criteria for active travel, but it remains one of the most subjective.

The mismanagement of safety on new or improved active travel infrastructure could slow, or even stop the progress of the active travel revolution in its tracks, because of the negative user or stakeholder perception this could generate.

Active Travel England has stated that safety will be one of the key criteria examined during post-implementation inspections. This makes it something local authorities need to manage when developing schemes and following construction.

Do we have the right tools to deliver Active Travel? 

The more traditional Road Safety Engineering approach involves investigating and analysing collisions on the highway to develop policies, processes and standards. 

Road Safety Auditors apply their trade where proposals for a physical change to the highway exist. This is mainly subjective, and it does not quantify risks in this approach. Indeed, the road safety audit team informs the designer based on what they have previously seen and understood from other failures.

But what if this change is unprecedented, or is system and not infrastructure based? Purely focussing on reducing any risk to road users can present a gloomy picture of a scheme put through the process. As such, we sometimes accuse the Road Safety Audit of stifling innovation. Especially where it is (incorrectly) used as a ‘pass or fail’ tool to determine how safe a scheme is.

Using the more traditional road safety risk management approach could result in a disjointed active travel network. One with the potential to ultimately derail the vision set out by the UK Government and the devolved administrations.

What can we learn from elsewhere?

Whilst developing smart motorways, National Highways recognised the need to manage safety risks in a more formal and quantified way. This resulted in the development of GG 104 – a requirement and advice document setting out a systematic risk-based approach to implementing any change on the network. 

But these requirements don’t formally apply outside this organisation. The Smart Motorway system and risk-based approach is rarely applied in a highways environment.

However, as we try to adapt to the changing world and be more innovative, its use will become more frequent. Earlier this year, BSi published PAS 1881:2022, making an operational risk assessment a key part of any automated vehicle trial or test.

Aligned with GG104, it requires the author of the overall safety case to show that they are managing the risks to all parties, including other road users, under the principle of making them as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP).

How can this help Active Travel schemes?

Much of the innovative active travel infrastructure being planned needs to change travel behaviour, i.e. persuade car users to switch modes to walking and cycling. Somewhere along the line, this critical link between engineering, user behaviour and safety gets lost; all three must work in partnership to deliver a successful outcome.

We can apply the principles of GG 104 to any scheme. For active travel, this could mean a more in-depth look at identified hazards to all road users and the development of specific mitigation measures much earlier in the design process and, crucially, before the road safety audit.

This provides a more quantified approach (as opposed to a subjective one). It could also support consistency in measuring schemes, similar to the way other tools like Cycling Level of Service and the Junction Assessment Tool are used to quantify other key active travel design criteria.

The benefits of this approach are:

  • A clear audit trail of safety risk management from scheme concept to construction, showing that they have managed identified risks throughout. 

  • Providing reassurance to the road safety audit team of the management of identified risks.

  • A better outcome for all road users, including improved safety and a more consistent and coherent network.

  • It’s important to note that no scheme can guarantee zero harm. But we can reduce the risk of harm to more tolerable levels in line with the ALARP principle. 

Does it work?

Atkins has developed a safety risk management tool based on the principles of GG 104. We are applying this to many active travel schemes across the country.

In our experience, it enables:

  • A better understanding of road user risks at an early stage, enabling stakeholder and client discussions at an appropriate time;

  • The development of mitigation measures that are integrated into the scheme from the onset rather than retro-fitted at a later date following a safety incident;

  • The ability to gather pertinent data on typical hazards associated with active travel schemes that help improve designer learning, which can inform matters arising for new guidance documents or standards development, thus promoting continual learning;

  • A better understanding of the need to consider construction phasing in the design of new schemes, particularly larger schemes, to manage user safety throughout a phased development approach; and

  • Fewer barriers to innovation presented by stakeholders and road safety auditors.

Across the industry, we have many tools and processes to help build the next generation of active travel infrastructure. Effective safety risk management is a vital addition to these, and used in the right way is a key enabler in implementing such schemes. We should no longer see safety as a barrier to innovation.


Fraser Arnot, UK Technical Authority for Active Travel:

John-Paul Doherty, UK Technical Authority for Operational Safety of Highways:


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