The definition of madness

On the Guardian Bike Blog, Tom Richards points out that “while we’d all love better cycling infrastructure, there is neither the money nor the political will…” Therefore we should focus on easier and more populist things — like conquering human nature and legislating to re-educate 30 million people.

Now, leaving aside the fact that the effects of changing driver education (if there are ever any effects at all, and it’s not a very robustly researched field) have long lag times — as long as street lifecycles. And leaving aside the fact that there is no evidence that this sort of intervention would ever actually have any significant effect on the sort of issues we’re concerned about, such as occurrence and severity of motor vehicle/cycle crashes (but if Richards were to propose a randomised controlled trial…). And leaving aside the fact that it could have, at best, only a small effect on the arguably more important issue of barriers to cycling, which are more about subjective assessment of the comfort of the environment than about raw injury statistics, and so can make no significant contribution to solving the wider issues which cycling is tied to. Basically, leaving aside the fact that this is, at best, a mediocre proposal. The interesting question is, why do people keep clinging to these kinds of ideas?

The idea that somehow physical engineering is difficult and expensive and unpopular, while changing human behaviour is quick, easy, cheap and effective, is one that the British are remarkably strongly attached to. It is manifested in a wide variety of rarely very effective campaigns and initiatives, from marketing the unmarketable to the bizarrely widespread belief that obscure details of insurance law are a significant influence on behaviour. One of my favourite examples of the attitude was caught by Freewheeler a couple of years ago, from “3 feet please” campaigner and now ex LCC trustee David Love:

This provoked a response from David Love in the Comments, who among things writes:

Sure, segregation would be great but in London at least there’s no room and no money so it’s not going to happen.
Campaigning for behaviour change is more realistic right now

And there you have the ‘realism’ of a man who is LCC Trustee and Vice Chair.

But the British tradition of soft measures goes far wider, deeper and further back than this. Motorists may moan about having been the victim of a “war” that restricts their freedom, polices their movements, or sends campaigns of severe punishment for accidental and unavoidable infringement of petty rules, but the reality is that right from the start, when the red flag acts were repealed, this country’s response (and that of much of the English-speaking world) to the problems that motorists create on the road has largely been light touch and libertarian, in which the children are simply asked again and again to play nice, even as they become ever greater bullies, and only if they’re really bad might they have their pocket money docked. We encourage and raise awareness, appeal to the legendary British sense of fair play, and still believe that the ideal road is within reach if only we can persuade everybody to get along through courtesy, good manners, and communicating our intentions clearly to one another.

Joe Moran has an entertaining history of this English approach to road safety in the chapter “please don’t be rude on the road” in On Roads. Amongst others he tells the story of Mervyn O’Gorman, who argued against introducing a driving test because all that a motorist should require is a natural “road sense”, and who acted on his belief that the cause of road accidents is poor communication by inventing the Highway Code, a list of mostly legally baseless customs and courtesies, explaining that “is is just as ungentlemanly to be discourteous or to play the fool on the king’s highway as it would be for a man to push his wife off her chair at the Sunday tea table and grab two pieces of cake.” Perhaps most entertaining is his coverage of the period in the 1930s when “courtesy cops” went around with megaphones politely asking errant drivers to behave themselves. He concludes:

Underneath this appeal lay an uncomfortable truth: many members of the respectable middle classes were incompetent drivers who were to blame for fatal road accidents. Rather than turning them into criminals through putative legislation, British traffic law relied on appeals to their sense of fair play. It was always better, went the mantra of the time, to cultivate good habits than propose bad bills. [Sound familiar?] So the courtesy cops did not prosecute motorists; they offered friendly advice to the careless. The Times blamed accidents on what it called ‘motorious carbarians’ — the few bad apples hidden among the vast majority of gentlemanly drivers, who could be relied upon to break the law sensibly. Motoring correspondents railed against excessive regulation in the 1930s in a way that eerily echoes today’s campaigns against speed cameras and road humps. ‘Regulation after regulation pours from the Ministry of Transport in a never-ending flood,’ complained the Daily Mirror in 1934 … but ‘courtesy and good manners may be cultivated easily enough by everyone.’

They say that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. For eighty years or more the answer to motorists playing nice has been just a little bit more education and awareness raising, and look where it has got us. It’s time to call off the search for the British sense of fair play and abandon the naive idea that meaningful and worthwhile change on the road can be achieved with a few gentle nudges.

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19 responses to “The definition of madness

  1. Oh heavens, why won’t people try a pilot project? Just one town with excellent provisions and the debate is ended!

    • This was exactly our proposal at the start of the Cycling Demonstration Town initiative. When this was turned down for Darlington, we then suggested just ONE main commuter route. But nope, the golden rule had to be adhered to – never take away any space from the poor motorists.

      Right now we are sitting on Copenhagen observing how, in even the narrowest of streets, if it needs doing for cyclist safety, it will get done. Nothing to do with cost – infrastructure here is often very cheap (paint, lots of paint). Nothing to do with “not enough space”. Everything to do with clear priorities and political will. The research in Darlington even showed that the vast majority of citizens WANTED this to happen.

      As you say, a pilot project along these lines in just one UK town, please.

  2. We’ve got 2 or 3 whole countries to look at Koen, but the nutters still don’t believe it. Then there’s Bogota and Seville.

    btw I’ve also driven around Holland, and their motorists have appalling motorway manners; so it isn’t the case that Dutch people are just nicer.

  3. I actually agree about the lack of politcal will meaning its very hard to envisage the cycling infrastructure ever being improved in this country.

    But then I’m deeply pessimistic about a great many things relating to politics, from the financial crisis to the EU to political corruption through to racism and terrorism – its all pretty depressing when you think about it.

    But what’s the alternative other than pluggng on and hoping things will eventually change?

    In the case of cycling, to quote Maggie, there is no alternative. Plus I’m old enough to (just about) remember a time when cars didn’t dominate our streets to the degree they do today. Its hasn’t always been that way and it doesn’t have to remain that way.

    Certainly ‘vehicular cycling’ amd ‘educating motorists’ (sans real legal penalties, vigorously enforced) simply don’t work at all as a solution, because they are rather obviously fatally flawed in theory and falsified in practice. Its a bad-faith alternative suggested by those who don’t want to admit they don’t want to do anything at all.

    As for
    “Sure, segregation would be great but in London at least there’s no room and no money so it’s not going to happen.”

    I would say the same about free on-street parking for motor vehicles. There’s no room, and no money – yet, strangely, its happened anyway. increasingly at the expense of pedestrians!

    • Christine jones

      You don’t need to segregate unless speeds exceed 30mph, simply bring parts that are tricky down to 20mph and if there’s room for 60mph, build a path or create a route that has cycling in mind from start to finish. They do it in medieval cities in holland, Germany and Denmark. There simply is no excuse. Successive governments in their inactivity are actually culpable for the high death rate of cyclists. In holland they took to the streets with the campaign ‘stop child murder’. What will it take for it to change here?

  4. “Pilot project” Did I hear you say? Well, that raises an interesting contrast.

    When I was younger, and less careful of my pennies, I used to fly aeroplanes. In fact, I held a Private Pilot’s Licence for about 20 years. Now, flying a light aeroplane is arguably less difficult or complex than driving a car. Mechanically, they are no more complex than a moped, with controls operated by rods and cables. There is no complex engine management, very little in the way of fiddly distractions, and you have an “open road” in a way that you never see on the ground any more – to see another aeroplane within a mile or so of you is a rarity outside the aerodrome circuit. The only distinction between driving and flying training and competence is that a great deal more attention is paid, at the outset and in refresher training, to responding to emergency situations. Some of that is obvious: an engine stopping for something as trivial as running out of fuel doesn’t just lead to pulling over and waiting for the RAC to arrive a with a jerrycan.

    However, you are very unlikely indeed to suffer serious harm flying an aeroplane for any reasons other than your own stupidity or incompetence. Engine failures are most frequently due to not checking ensuring adequate fuel has been loaded for the flight. Crashes into high ground are due to not checking the terrain on your map, or flying under cloud in bad weather which you should probably never have taken off in.

    If you do crash, you are also very unlikely to cause harm to anyone on the ground. You do occasionally hear of planes crash-landing in built up areas, but that is very rare and if the pilot has any control at all he will, for his own preservation, point at the most open ground he can find.

    And yet, and yet: the amount and quality of training required to fly a plane is a multiple of what you need to drive a car. The flying test is much more rigorous, and there are several written exams on various subjects including aerodynamics and meteorology. As a private pilot you must complete a minimum of 12 hours flying every 24 months, and must have at least one hour’s flying with a qualified instructor doing a cross between exercises and an informal flying test.

    Furthermore, if you commit any breaches of flying regulations, retribution is swift and brutal. Fairly minor infractions which don’t actually hurt anyone can lead to fines of £000s. Gross infractions can lead to imprisonment. As a result – probably – light planes are flown much more competently and with much greater care than cars are driven, and accidents are fewer than you might otherwise expect.

    In a motor vehicle, you can do a great deal more damage, to yourself, your passengers and to other road users, especially pedestrians. And yet the standards imposed to acquire a driving licence, and then to keep it, are woefully slack by comparison. Why? Because otherwise they would challenge the hegemony of the motor car, which has a huge industry lobbying for it – the light aeroplane industry is a minnow by comparison. Apart from the observable fact that education, detection and punishment has only limited effect – look at the high murder rates in US states where the death penalty is regularly applied – what must be one of the top three industrial lobbies (after armaments and agriculture?) will make sure that sanctions do not become measurably tougher. That is how they see their interest in selling cars being best served.

    Finding both the money and the political will for proper infrastructure sounds like a breeze by comparison.

    • Christine jones

      Very good point. Uk plc is in the pockets of the car industry, the food industry and the banking and insurance industry. Money wins people loose. It will change but it’s going to take a massive body of will power, similar to women getting the vote, ending slavery and laws against racism. Still a way to go.

  5. Encouragement, penalties for bad behaviour, and education for motorists doesn’t work for one simple reason: If you ask any motorist whether they’re a good driver, they’ll almost always say “yes”, and that “it’s the other drivers who behave badly and have crashes”. No-one expects to crash, kill or injure when they drive, and for the vast majority of the time they don’t.

    Health and Safety experts know this is fact, and put training and protective equipment right at the bottom of the list of effective safety interventions. Top of the list are measures that remove the source of danger: the only thing that will work is to keep potentially-lethal motor vehicles away from people on foot (already done!) and away from people on bicycles (as done in NL).

    Decent cycle paths away from motor traffic are not only cost-effective safety measures, they actually are investments with real and large financial returns for society. The sooner we start building them, the better for the UK’s economy.

  6. @PaulM, that is simply a wonderfully coherent and articulate comment (well, almost a post in its own right!)

  7. So what do you propose? It’s not worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater just because we have a history of ineffectual ‘encouragement’ of sharing the road. If anything it does mean that a more authoritarian (by British standards) approach is perhaps needed. Behaviour change is desirable but and as you’ve pointed out appealing to people’s sense of fair play is mostly worthless. So why not appeal to their wallets? Why not incentivise cycle training for all through lower car insurance premiums for high level passes? Even if people don’t eventually cycle, they’ll have the benefit of seeing things from another perspective.

    Alternatively, how about leaning on the police to enforce traffic laws more consistently for all road users? This will lead to less red light jumping and the subsequent “righteous” indignation that motorists openly display towards cyclists through the outright disrespect that causes incidents.

    On top of this of course there’s a place for infrastructure, but the case for respect isn’t dead yet, it just never had enough muscle behind it to begin with.

  8. Christine jones

    Good article. So we need laws to protect cyclists like in holland and denmark and a trully integrated cycle network throughout the whole of the uk. We do have the money, it would have a far more positive effect on the economy than bailing out the banks, save the nhs billions and improve the quality of life exponentially. Let’s do it? Where do I sign? Who do we ask?

  9. Monchberter:
    “the case for respect isn’t dead yet, it just never had enough muscle behind it to begin with”

    So what we need is ‘one more push’? Which is, of course, what the generals used to say in WWI, just before sending another few thousand footsoldiers (casual cyclists?) over the top…

    Let’s try another another analogy for the current situation. In waste management, people have been trying for ages to get away from ‘end of pipe’ solutions for reducing pollution. It’s a lot harder, more costly, and generally less efficient to try and deal with the crap once it’s flowing through some outlet and into a river. Much easier to stop people putting toxics into the system in the first place. Calls for “respect”, soft measures, incentives, better behaved cyclicts, “taking the lane”, even seemingly practical but probably (given current priorities) pie in the sky stuff like tougher traffic policing – are nothing but end of pipe solutions, trying to deal with the toxic mess once it’s already out in the environment.

    Like Fonant says above: remove the source of danger (the toxics in the system) where you can, and the problem is much reduced.

  10. David Love is a thoroughly good bloke who’s done a vast amount to promote London cycling over many years. However, those views on segregation are not shared by the LCC campaigns team nor are they the collective view of our Board of Trustees, which is firmly behind our infrastructure-led ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign.

    http://lcc.org.uk/pages/go-dutch

    We don’t think it’s contradictory to also support measures to improve the standard of driving in the capital, of which the most important must be much tougher law enforcement against dangerous drivers, on-bike training for all drivers (especially those in charge of large lorries) and stricter liability.

    Saying that, we recognise that probably the most effective long-term way to improve driver standards is encouraging many more drivers to cycle regularly (and their children and partners too), which means designing streets that are safe and inviting for everyone to cycle.

  11. I’m not a fan of the punitive approach to controlling motorists’ behaviour: it creates “martyrs” and promotes an aggressive attitude to traffic control measures. In my mind, one of the best ways of improving road safety would be to make it technically impossible for motor vehicles to break speed limits, using GPS. This technology – called EVSC – was studied by Leeds University in the late nineties for the Transport Research Lab and they recommended rolling implementation on all new vehicles, taking 19 years. At the time the report came out, I thought “why 19 years: surely this can be fitted to a car as it gets its MOT and the programme done in five years?”. Now, 12 years later, nothing has been done, despite the report saying that it would cut road deaths by 40% and have an impact on carbon dioxide emissions, even with no reduction in speed limits. And 19 years looks like a wildly optimistic estimate.

    The other benefit of EVSC is that there would be no need for speed bumps in 20mph zones. They are a pain in the butt for cyclists (literally), expensive and they increase car emissions. I saw an estimate that the current programme of speed bumps for such zones would cost £8bn. A lot of segregated cycle lanes could be built for that money, and some of it could also be used to fit EVSC to cars for free.

    Of course, the motoring organisations campaign against EVSC, and no doubt lobbied against it when the report came out.

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