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John Adams: The road safety expert who was ahead of his time

During his long career John Adams, an emeritus professor of geography at University College London, produced groundbreaking work on road safety. He expanded the concept of ‘risk compensation’ – a theory that suggests people adjust their behaviour in response to perceived levels of risk. Robert Davis pays tribute to the widely respected academic, who has died aged 85.

19 June 2024


In the late 1980s I was sitting in John Adams’ study discussing risk compensation in relation to our campaign for the wearing of front seat belts to be made compulsory. It was a snowy morning and John’s son Tom wanted to play in the street outside his Muswell Hill home. We talked through John’s risk-taking decision on whether to allow him to do so: Tom was allowed out as the conditions made the road more dangerous for drivers, who would tend to slow down and watch out more, and thus make the road safer for pedestrians.

Of course, there was a lot more to it than that – he would be the first to welcome evidence-based criticism. But this story highlights the two key concerns for John Adams: increasing motorisation and the balance of power between different road user groups, and how we approach risk generally.

Born in Canada, after taking degrees there and gaining a PhD from LSE in 1971, he became a lecturer in geography at University College London and Professor in 1998. He was member of the Board at Friends of the Earth in the 1970s, and part of John Tyme’s campaigns against motorway building. 

His groundbreaking opposition to mainstream transport planning, particularly on the use of cost-benefit analysis, was published in his “Transport Planning: Vision and Practice”. This featured the beginning of detailed analysis of the effects of seat belt wearing, showing how changes in perceptions of risk by belted drivers led to changes in driving behaviour and the burden of risk being shifted to road users outside cars. 

The focus on how people adapt to changes in their perception of danger was highlighted in his collaboration with Mayer Hillman and John Whitelegg with “One False Move: A Study of Children’s Independent Mobility” (1990). It showed how parental concerns about road danger had massively cut children’s walking and cycling journeys – to the great cost of their mental and physical health, an area which had not then received attention from transport professionals.

More importantly, it showed how the apparent improvement in ‘road safety’ with fewer children’s casualties was in fact not only a poor, but contradictory, indicator of the level of road danger experienced for actual or potential children’s walking or cycling.

In the 1990s Adams spent more time exploring how societies evaluate and conceptualise risk generally, pointing out the cultural and psychological issues involved. He developed a typology of risk taking, with the aim of being able to develop rigorously based discussion which could address issues in transport and elsewhere, as he put it: “in the hope of transforming shouting matches into more constructive dialogues.”

You can read the above works and more recent essays at: http://www.john-adams.co.uk

Interest in possible commemorative events should be expressed to his family through me at chairrdrf@aol.com 

Dr Robert Davis is Chair of the Road Danger Reduction Forum

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