Repost: The definition of madness

So TfL have produced a short advert once again asking everybody to calm down, play nice, and share the road. I figured it might make a good excuse to post again this thing that I scribbled a couple of years ago.

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.

6 thoughts on “Repost: The definition of madness”

  1. I think you’re slightly missing the point here.

    I think the point is that the TfL campaign is based on lumping all road users together, as if there were no difference in the effects on others of rule/law breaking driving on the one hand and rule/law breaking cycling or walking on the other.

    This attempt to neutralise the different kinds of potential lethality among the different types of road user (basically the motorised on the one hand, non-motorised on the other) to others is what characterises “road safety” propaganda, and always has done.

    The reason why it keeps getting repeated is nothing to do with anybody seriously expecting a reduction in casualties as a result. It is all about attempting to bolster the ideology and culture of “road safety” which both underpins and is generated by the power relations of a car dependent society.

    I deal with this at length here:

  2. Reblogged this on nazanfennell and commented:
    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.

  3. At last, some sanity! I have long maintained (and blogged on it) that one cannot ‘educate’ away stupidity, anymore than one can ‘educate’ away belligerence.

    In the United Kingdom, the cyclist is part of a minority ‘out group’, whereas ‘everyone drives’. The result is that the government, the police, the CPS and the courts treat almost all motoring offences with total impunity.

    I also believe that well over half of the ‘accidents’ involving injury or death to a cyclist, are the result of a ‘punishment pass’ gone wrong. But when it’s on a country road, and there are no witnesses, it’s easy to claim that ‘the sun was low and I was temporarily blinded!’. ‘Say no more, Mr Car Driver… it could happen to anyone. £150 fine’.

    What I don’t get is that whilst drivers are being given a slap on the wrist for killing and injuring other road users, that Parliament Square is not ablaze. That there are not running battles with the police. That cycling groups are not sending the message to the government: either you enforce the law, or you leave us no choice but to do it for you. That the corpses of murdering car drivers are not being found in ditches next to the A20, with a bullet wound under the left ear.

    Because if anyone of us believes that ‘campaigning’ will have any effect whatsoever on government, then that old joke about having a bridge for sale, applies here. Because when you send the petitition to the Department of Transport, they only thing they’ll do with it is to crumple it up and use it to wipe their ar*e.

  4. I like the idea that the British sense of “fair play” is a factor in this. Clearly punishing drivers who make mistakes is “just not cricket”, while people who are killed or injured on our roads are just lacking in suitable training and understanding of the rules of the game.

    The idea fits with the feeling that transport policies are created by the upper classes, with minimal consideration for the unwashed masses: why make it safe for the little people to walk and ride bicycles, when successful people have large chauffeur-driven cars with plenty of crash protection?

    It’s “fair play” to the people in power, and sadly not at all fair on the people they have power over. British colonialism all over again?

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