Can drivers be taught a lesson?

M’coblogger Ed thinks there is a case for teaching drivers to behave — specifically by appeals to patriotism. Education programmes are a popular idea amongst cyclists, cash-strapped councils, and road safety types. I dismissed them as a solution that doesn’t work in my own post on revenge and road danger, but didn’t go into any detail. So I thought I better ask: what’s the best evidence we have about driver education programmes?

Remember what I said about bicycle helmets. It may be common sense that teaching drivers will make roads safer and nicer places to be, but common sense is frequently wrong, and cures can kill if they’re based on common sense rather than evidence. Trying to educate drivers could make the roads safer and nicer. It could be entirely ineffective. Or it could make them more dangerous and less pleasant. Until we conduct a controlled trial, we don’t know which.

There are two systematic reviews from the Cochrane Collaboration looking at the effectiveness of driver education programmes.  Cochrane reviews are, remember, the independent synthesis of everything that we know about a particular intervention, and are considered by doctors to be the closest thing we can ever get to fact.

The first Cochrane Review looks at the effectiveness of driver education in existing drivers. The schemes that have been trialled particularly focus on advanced driver training — the sort of programme that is designed to improve hazard detection and reduce error making, and which is frequently recommended for professional drivers — and on the remedial programmes that are increasingly offered to drivers who break the rules as an alternative to a driving ban.  These are lessons and lectures rather than marketing campaigns, but the remedial programmes — lectures on why speed limits matter — are particularly relevant to the “be nice” approach to making our streets nicer places where people feel able to ride bicycles.

The review found 24 trials from 1962 to 2002, all in the US except for one in Sweden, with more than 300,000 participants between them.  With those sorts of numbers, there is little chance of the review accidentally getting a false result.  Four were for advanced driving courses, the rest for remedial classes.  The programmes ranged from the simple supply of written material (9 trials) — a letter and copy of the rule book — through group lectures (16 trials) to proper one-on-one classes (7 trials), but all were designed to improve “driver performance and safety”.

The trials typically checked up on participants two years later and compared the rate of rule breaking and/or the rate of crashes in those who received the education programme and the controls who did not.  There was no difference. The education programmes didn’t stop drivers breaking the law or having crashes.  The authors concluded that companies shouldn’t bother with driving courses for their staff, but should let them take the train instead.

The evidence reviewed isn’t perfect. They could not, for example, blind participants as to whether they were in the study or control group. And the conclusions apply to the 32 specific advance driving courses and remedial classes that were trialled — we can not say for sure that other types of education campaign wouldn’t work. But the evidence tells us to at least be very wary of investing in any campaign strategy that relies on teaching people to play nice.

The second Cochrane review looks at the effectiveness of educating school kids before they start driving.  These are the sort of programmes that are supposed to address the fact that 17-21 year old drivers are twice as likely to crash as the average driver. They are particularly popular with the Road Safety industry and there are several varieties common in this country.  Indeed, I have first hand experience: it must have been during the final GCSE year, aged 15 or 16, that we were all taken to the Bovington tank training circuit to take it in turns driving hatchbacks (sadly no tanks) around the track, doing hill starts, three point turns, reverse parking, and, as a treat afterwards, emergency stops from 70mph. While not everybody is privileged enough to get real practical lessons, the government does at least make sure that kids are taught how to get a learner’s license and find an instructor, what tests they will need to take, and are given a few road safety messages.¹ *

The Cochrane review found three RCTs with a total of around 18,000 students. The review looked at the public health outcome of the trials, typically measured as the rate of crashes and/or violations in the first few years of holding a license. Giving school kids driving education did not reduce the incidence of crashes and violations.

Indeed, the authors, against common sense, found evidence of the opposite. The reason can be found in the other outcome that the trials measured: the time it took the kids from turning 17 (or whatever age was relevant in their particular locality) to passing their driving test (which the study gives the awful name “license delay”). Kids who were given driving classes at school were more likely to seek and obtain a license, and they did so earlier — and we already know that age correlates with crash rate and rule breaking (or at the very least, being caught and punished for rule breaking).  Driving classes in school weren’t making people drive safely, but they were making people drive.

You can see why driver education programmes are so popular with the road safety industry, puppet of the motoring lobby. The trials reviewed by Cochrane were all from the mid 1980s, yet we continue to put money and effort into programmes that are worse than useless. My own school driving lesson was fifteen years after school driving lessons were shown to be harmful to our health.

Whenever questioned, the government cites as justification its own non-controlled study which showed that kids are able to recall and are vaguely more likely to agree with specific road safety messages when asked three months after the lessons. No, really. That’s it.¹

So drivers can be taught. They can be taught, before they even become drivers, that driving is normal, just something that everybody does. The moment I turned 17 I wasted about a hundred quid on driving lessons before I stopped to ask myself why. Everybody was doing it, right? You do GCSEs at 16, driving at 17, ‘A’-levels at 18. That’s how it works.

Perhaps they can be taught to behave and we just haven’t worked out how yet. There are not, so far as I am aware, any trials on the effectiveness of making motorists try cycling on the roads. But I suspect even that would have limited effect, and maybe even that could backfire too.

Because people generally don’t do what they’re told to do, they do whatever looks normal and natural and easy. You can call that selfish and lazy if you like, but I don’t think that will help you understand or overcome the behaviour. In the UK it is normal and natural and easy to learn to drive and then drive badly. And people refuse to be taught that the things which are normal and natural and easy, the things that everybody around them is doing, are wrong. Experience trumps the word of others.

In the Netherlands, incidentally, cycling is normal and natural and, thanks to the infrastructure, easy. In the UK it’s none of those things. Make it easy and you’re nine tenths of the way to making it normal and natural.

Continue reading “Can drivers be taught a lesson?”

Cyclist comes out of nowhere

Catching up on my millions of saved-for-later google reader items, I was stopped by this press release advertising truck cams.  The provider of the cameras is boasting that one caught a near miss between their client Sibley Material Movements’ truck and a cyclist, which showed the truck driver to be “not at fault”.  Watch it full screen.  There are a few simple facts that can be ascertained from the video.

The video shows the truck driving along a typical two-lane two-way road with oncoming traffic at a little over 40 mph and then braking  in the final seconds close behind a cyclist who was moving across the lane to make a right turn.  The video is sadly too low resolution and wide-angle to see if and how the cyclist checked behind them and signalled.

What one can see is that the cyclist was always in the lane.  The cyclist is described as having “pulled out”, but this merely refers to the preparation for the right turn.  There is no suggestion or evidence that the cyclist was not always in that lane ahead of the truck.  There is no way to enter the road from the left shown in the video, and the cyclist is there in the distance for the duration of the clip.  This is, remember, a two-lane two-way road, with oncoming traffic.

Which leaves a question for Sibley Material Movements, who boast that the video proves their driver was in no way at fault and that the truck was “being driven safely”: what was the driver planning to do had the cyclist not “pulled out”?  Given that this is a two-lane two-way road with oncoming traffic occupying the opposite lane, and given that the cyclist was always there ahead in the truck’s lane, and given that the truck was approaching the cyclist at a higher speed than the cyclist was travelling right up until those final seconds, what was the driver’s intended speed and position in the road at the time where they are instead shown honking their horn in the video?

Given that we can not turn back time and replay things in this hypothetical changed situation, and given that there is no legal definition of “safely”, it is impossible to say that the driver would not have proceeded “safely”.  I’m simply curious to know how, and how the video proves it.

Given the nature of the situation, the Jack of Kent comment rules will have to apply to this post.

An inconvenient driving ban

On the launch of the UN decade of action on road safety (which I wrote about here), Kim Harding questioned the choice of frontmen for the campaign: a pair of racing drivers with numerous convictions for driving offences.  Exploring further the British method of treating bad driving with driving license “endorsements and penalty points”, Kim noted a news article claiming that hundreds of motorists were still on the road despite having more than the magic number of 12 penalty points on their license.  It turns out that a motorist only needs to go before a judge to cry that a driving ban would cause “exceptional hardship” and the judge will happily discard everybody else’s right to safety in their streets in favour of a proven bad driver’s right to carry on driving.

Initially I was outraged.  Who are these people?  Why isn’t there a national register so that I can find out if my neighbourhood is safe?  Aren’t they even banned from going near schools?  Won’t anyone please think of the children?

But then I remembered that I don’t actually really know anything about penalty points, not having ever bothered to acquire the necessary paperwork to start collecting them myself.  I vaguely knew that 12 was the magic number that triggered a ban, but never had any reason to find out, for example, that it is only 12 points in a three year period that triggers an automatic ban.  But, Wikipedia tells me, points remain as a stain on your license for at least four years before “expiring” — more for the really serious kinds of dangerous driving.  So, given the system that we have, it’s actually perfectly possible to accumulate more than 12 points in, say, a four year period, without triggering the automatic ban.  I’m not saying the system is morally right, only that the existence of people allowed to drive despite having more than 12 points is not, if Wikipedia is correct, evidence of judges letting dangerous drivers free on the streets.

What is evidence of that is the FOI that reader Amoeba published in the comments on Kim’s piece.  In addition to the many thousands of people still driving despite having more than twelve points, fourteen are still on the road with 25 or more points — something that it really is impossible to do without triggering the automatic ban and having to cry to a judge.  Some people are on the roads with up to 36 active points.

The least awful thing that these people could be doing is driving without insurance (6-8pts), repeatedly getting caught for it, but being allowed to carry on.

The next least awful thing is that they are nicking other people’s cars — at least three of them — driving them very cautiously, and then torching them (thus making the theft count as “aggravated”) somewhere safe (3-11pts).  I’m sure that happens, right?  And a judge would let a repeat car thief carry on driving, right?

Alternatively, and I guess most likely, people have committed thirteen (or more) “minor” offences (2-3pts) in four years — speeding, jumping lights or otherwise disregarding the instructions, driving a poorly maintained vehicle, driving without glasses if required, etc.  (Of course, multiple instances of some of these could apply in a single go — e.g. four bald tires and faulty brakes would make a nice stack of points all in one go.)  This means that they have triggered an automatic ban probably eight or more times and every time they have gone begging to a judge and every time the judge has bought their story.  Which really does raise the question of what the points system is for if we don’t actually think people who have been caught driving badly and putting lives in danger thirteen times in four years need to be removed from the roads.  The points system already has massive generosity and forgiveness built into it.  The system gives you not just a second chance but a third and a fourth.  Apparently you can cry to a judge and get an infinite number of chances.

The worst option is that people have committed three or more of the worst offences — the 11 pointers: vehicular murder or manslaughter, causing death by dangerous driving, motor racing on public roads, drink driving, and so on.  Offences that normally carry an automatic ban regardless of the totting up of points.  And having done this thrice, the judge has decided that it’s fine for you to carry on driving.

I hope it’s not that last one, but then, none of the options reflect very well on any of the people involved.

If you’re angry about the injustice of how we deal with death on the streets, come along to Street Talks at the Yorkshire Grey, Theobalds Road, London, Tomorrow, Tues 5th, at 7ish for a talk by Amy Aeron-Thomas from RoadPeace.

Shared space in China

Via @tomvanderbilt, a video of an excellent piece of Shared Space infrastructure on Kunming’s third(!) ring road:

I’ve written before on the wonderful driving habits of the newly motorised Chinese.  While they don’t exactly have the concept of Shared Space*, they do have the related concept of might makes right of way, and it doesn’t matter to a Chinese car owner whether a bit of land is technically a bike track or a footway.  Not surprisingly, there is a massive death rate on the roads there, to the extent that the driving test prepares you to manage massive traumatic injuries.

In some of the backstreets of the Hutong neighbourhoods, the motor car has been banned because its presence overwhelms all other activities in the narrow spaces.

This picture used to be my favourite illustration of the current Chinese approach to roads, but the video above has surpassed it.

* A nice introduction to Shared Space is given by David Arditti.

How many people die on China’s roads, and why?

These are not easy questions to answer.  The stats are difficult to find because the country and its bureaucracy is vast and dispersed; and because after collecting the data in painful detail, the authorities just publish whatever numbers they want you to see — even if that means making them up.  And they’re difficult to find because the primary sources are written not only in a different language, but in a whole different alphabet; and most importantly of all, they’re difficult to find because there’s a bug in the new Google results page that prevents it loading beyond the first page in FireFox on Ubuntu.  (I take my research seriously, guys!)

Lots of sources say that a quarter of a million people die in RTAs in China every year, attributing it vaguely to the World Health Organisation.  WolframAlpha also stated this number, attributing it only to “2002”.  So, eight years ago — when the boom in China’s car dependency was only just beginning — there were 250,000 road deaths in China, accounting for 19.2 deaths per 100k.  By comparison, the UK had just 3,864 road deaths — but, due to the difference in demographics, had a statistically indistinguishable 19.1 deaths per 100k.

The interesting thing to note, though, is that while China had more than an order of magnitude more people than the UK, it had only 3.5 million cars, compared to the UK’s 28.5 million cars.*  So while in the UK there were about 135 road deaths per million cars; in China there were a whopping 71,400.  In 2002 there were five hundred times as many fatalities per-car in China compared to the UK.  As Melinda Liu puts it, China’s 1.3 billion people own 2 percent of the world’s vehicles but account for 15 percent of global traffic deaths.

There are many hypotheses for why China’s roads are so anarchic and dangerous.  In reality, most of them are probably parts of the explanation, to varying extents.  One obvious reason is that most drivers in Beijing are new to the whole driving thing.  This is a city where car ownership is growing at 10% per year and half of all drivers received their license within the past 5 years.  Everyone is a new driver, and there’s nobody with experience to set an example.

Amateur sociologists propose all sorts of other reasons, focusing on the context of China as a non-democratic nation — why in an authoritarian regime is there this pocket of anarchy?  In Tom Vanderbilt‘s Traffic, Beijing-based journalist Jonathan Landreth proposes that a car in traffic is the only place where the established societal hierarchy of the city breaks down, to be replaced with another where the little guy can achieve equality with the company director or city official: everybody is trying to assert themselves and create for themselves an elevated status.  They’re overcompensating for something.  Drivers overcompensating? It all seems a bit implausible.

Meanwhile, in Newsweek, Melinda Liu says:

“What makes driving in China especially hazardous is a combination of corrupt officials who can be bribed into dispensing licenses to unqualified drivers, aging or rickety vehicles, badly marked road construction, inexperienced drivers, and truckers on long hauls nodding off to sleep as they transport yet more goods to feed the country’s booming economy.”

And Liu Shinan of China Daily suggests that it is instead about history: “After the cultural revolution, which lasted for ten years, it was a chaotic society.  People didn’t show any respect for the law, because Chairman Mao encouraged the people to revolt, to question authority.”  In Traffic, Vanderbilt traces this anti-authoritarian streak even further back, to Confucian ideas of personal rights and indifference toward the public good.  China has dangerous roads because Motorists don’t care for others.  But does that alone explain it?  Bai Ping suggests that it’s down to government officials setting a bad example by ignoring the law themselves:

As a matter of fact, China has very detailed traffic rules that are covered in computerized tests for license applicants. For example, motorists pay a fine of 200 yuan ($29.3) and lose two points if they tailgate or take a phone call while driving.  But there is less of an incentive for obeying the law if people realize that those in power are not following the law. When stuck in a traffic jam, who doesn’t want to go follow an official who veers off to drive on the road shoulder or a bike lane?

The main reason, though, is the most obvious one of all.  When the law is not enforced, people break it.

* All figures from Professor Google — these were thrown together in a lunch break, they are not serious scholarship or investigative journalism.

A momentary attraction

Vaughan of the ever fascinating Mind Hacks discusses a recent study that looks at the effects of having an attractive passenger in the car on driver errors.  The researchers put forty people in driving simulators and made them drive through hazards while talking to passengers.  The basic finding was that the drivers failed to spot pedestrians and hit more motorbikes when talking to those passengers that they considered to be more attractive.  Driving with somebody you fancy is dangerous.

More interesting, though, is the detail.  The drivers who were distracted by their hot companions were more anxious and drove slower; their eyes continued to look in all the right directions.  The errors that they made were “looked but failed to see” errors: they were looking at the road and mirrors as usual, but not processing the information.  I imagine they thought that they were driving well, at appropriate speed, and making all of the checks that they needed to make…

Link to PubMed entry for study; link to Vaughan’s post.