Tag Archives: motorism

A vaccine for road safety

I stumbled upon this infomercial from BBC World while looking for something to entertain me over dinner:

It’s always fascinating to see how a television documentary treats a subject that one has spent some time looking at — in this case, motor vehicles and public health.

The one little specific aspect of motor vehicles and public health that the documentary looks at is the problem of “road safety”, particularly in the poorer parts of the world.  Well over a million people die on the world’s roads each year, disproportionately poor people killed by or in the name of rich people, putting road danger alongside those similarly neglected poor people’s problems, malaria and tuberculosis, in the public health league tables.

The documentary looked at the sort of interventions that can be made to reduce road deaths.  They are interventions that the UN has backed as part of the “decade of action” on road safety, and which the World Bank is now helping to fund.  They seem to fall into two categories: engineering and education.

The reasoning behind an engineering campaign is that it has been observed that some road designs see more deaths than other road designs.  Motorways, with their regimented traffic, central reservations and hard shoulders, have fewer fatalities than roads that pitch opposing traffic head on, separated only by a bit of paint.  Therefore, the World Bank will replace the dangerous streets and roads of the developing world with motorways.  Some of you might already be mumbling something about confounding variables, and safety being achieved simply by driving vulnerable road users away with hostile environments, but shut up you ingrates, it’s a gift, for their safety.

Unfortunately, they are discovering that even when you build these fantastic new eight-lane highways, no matter how much you teach the kids the green-cross code, the bloody fools still misuse them. “The irony is, that freeway is supposed to serve the people, in whatever form that takes.” So the kindly international road safety folk are building pedestrian overpasses. They’re not even going to ask why people are trying to cross their shiny new road. Are they trying to get to their workplaces? Their school, or shops, or market? Their few remaining fields? What kind of a moron builds their house on one side of a motorway and their school on the other?  You might ask whether it’s worth expending money on people who make such an elemental mistake.  But the road safety folk are so nice they will provide a foot bridge just like that — no awkward questions asked.

The reasoning behind an education campaign is that it has been observed that many of the people who are dying are pedestrians and “two-wheeler” users, doing silly reckless things like running from one side of the road to the other, or putting themselves in the way of vehicles without first encasing themselves in armour.  Did you know that in some of these countries they don’t even have hi-viz?  Even some drivers are endangering themselves by not wearing a seatbelt.  The only possible conclusion is that these people are ignorant of the risks that come with running across a motorway, and the benefits to be had from wearing helmets and seatbelts.  If only we could reach out and let them know…

“Enforcing drink driving laws, making people wear seatbelts, toughening up on vehicle maintenance standards, these are all basic affordable things,” the presenter tells us.  If only our own government thought so.

Unfortunately, enforcement seems to be a slip of the tongue.  This doesn’t appear to be about enforcing drink-driving and seatbelt laws, but about educating people about the dangers of drink-driving and the merits of seatbelts.  And simply telling people how to do something that they don’t want to do is at best an inefficient route to behavioural change.  This has been shown time and time again, study after study shows that telling people — whether child pedestrians or experienced drivers — to do specific things in order to be safe on roads just doesn’t work.  (See e.g. the review drawn up for NICE, the UK body which decides whether proposed health interventions are worthwhile.)

The one thing that road safety education does achieve, of course is good PR for the company that is funding it.

The BBC documentary doesn’t say who is behind all this stuff. A few representatives of development NGOs pop up, we visit the UN, who have put their name to the “decade of action”, and we know that the World Bank will be amongst those building roads. But we don’t really hear from the concerned and benevolent folk who persuaded the UN and World Bank to spend all this money on bigger safer roads.

Michelle Yeoh, presenter of the BBC item, is global ambassador for road safety at the “Make Roads Safe” campaign.  That campaign is the public facing side of the “Commission for Global Road Safety”, itself a part of the FIA Foundation.  The FIA Foundation in turn being the independent charity funded by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the international automobile lobby.

Ian Roberts describes who the commissioners on the Commission for Global Road Safety are:

Canada is represented by an Executive Director at General Motors, Japan by a Board Member of the Bridgestone Corporation, the major trans-national tyre maker. Russia is represented by the President of the Russian Automobile Federation and Italy by a former president of the Automobile Club of Italy. Michael Schumacher represents Germany and France is represented by Gerard Saillant, Deputy President of the FIA Institute, another FIA creation and responsible for the medical aspects of Formula One. The UK Commissioner is the Chief Economist at Lehman Brothers, a US investment bank with financial links to Formula One. The US Commissioner is Director of the Global Road Safety Forum, an organization funded by the FIA and one of the ‘implementation partners’ that the Commission works with. The Commission’s Patron is Prince Michael of Kent, a former racing driver, now a member of the British Racing Drivers Club and the Bentley Drivers Club. Lord Robertson himself is Deputy Chairman of the Board of TNK-BP, a Russian oil company. According to the Lords’ Register of Interests, which shows that the FIA paid for Robertson to attend the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix, the Commission meets at the races.

In a response to Roberts’ paper about the Commission, the FIA Foundation reminded us that it “has no relationship with industry whatsoever”.

At Bath Skeptics, Ian Walker, referring to British road conditions, stated that anybody who has to use the roads as part of their job is working in Dickensian conditions.  Health and Safety regulation means that death in the workplace is exceptionally rare in Europe today, and when it does occur, it is typically followed by extensive investigation to discover what went wrong, whether anybody was to blame, and how to prevent it ever happening again.  Unless the workplace is a road, in which case death is routine, nobody is to blame, and nothing can be done about it.  If you drive as part of your job, you are expendable labour.

One of the reasons that Europe’s workplaces are so safe, of course, is because we have simply outsourced the dangerous jobs.  The poor of Africa and Asia, free from health and safety laws, are mining our minerals and weaving our clothes for pennies, working in real Dickensian conditions, and the World Bank needs to build big roads so that they can drive the products to the docks.  Like Victorian mill-workers, the third world should be grateful for the kindness showed by their new bosses in providing such safe new roads, servants of the people.

Passive driving

“The ideal of the ethical man,” wrote the great Victorian scientist and liberal Thomas Henry Huxley, “is to limit his freedom of action to a sphere in which he does not interfere with the freedom of others.”

At Bath Skeptics in the Pub in April, Ian Walker talked about transport-related (ir)rational behaviour and policy.  One of the ideas he talked about was “passive driving”.  The analogy, of course, is to passive smoking.  Every time a smoker lights up in a restaurant or pub or club, the health and life expectancy of all the diners, punters, and staff around that smoker takes a tiny hit.  And those people get nothing positive in return.  In a liberal society, we defend the right of smokers to give themselves horrible slow fatal diseases.  But we expect them not to interfere with the rights of everyone else to their health.  And on the occasions when they can not show that restraint voluntarily, we have to resort to legislation banning smoking in restaurants and pubs and clubs.

Similarly, every time you get into your car and fire up the engine, my health and life expectancy takes a hit, and I get nothing in return.  You get to work or to the shops or to a day out, but I get nothing except a reduced life expectancy. Every time you get in the driving seat, you are making the decision that your journey is worth more than my and everybody else’s health and wellbeing. How big a problem is it?

Well, before the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces and workplaces, estimates were that around 600 people in the UK were dying prematurely each year because of exposure to second-hand  tobacco smoke in those environments.

Exposure to driving in the UK annually causes:

  • over 2,000 deaths in what the DfT describe as road “accidents”, of which less than half are of car users (stats for drivers and passengers are, sadly, all combined). Around 500 pedestrians, just over 100 cyclists, around 500 motorcyclists and a few bus and coach passengers are killed in “accidents”.  A few of those deaths will have nothing to do with cars — indeed, some genuinely will be “accidents” — but most are in some way the consequence of other people choosing to get in a car, a choice that would never bring any benefit to the person killed. As Harry Rutter pointed out at Street Talks, pedestrian deaths are particularly high in children, the elderly, and the lowest socio-economic groups: people to whom the benefits of car use are often out of reach, but who have to suffer the negative consequences regardless.  Motor vehicles are the biggest cause of death in teenagers, who should have a large proportion of their lives ahead of them, arguably making road “accidents” a more important issue than diseases which kill late in life and thus take away fewer quality life years.
  • Air pollution is not a fashionable topic, yet estimates of UK deaths attributable to it are even higher than for crashes, ranging from 12,000 to 35,000. Motor vehicles are not the only contributor to air pollution, but they are the major one.  Air pollution is especially a problem in cities, paradoxically the places that usually have the highest proportion of non-car users.  People living happily in cities without a car — who have perhaps even made the conscious decision to live somewhere within walking or cycling distance of employment and shops and services — again have to deal with the negative consequences of people driving into and through their city.
  • Diseases associated with obesity and sedentary lifestyles are amongst the biggest killers of our time: cardiovascular disease, cancers, diabetes, even dementia.  We know that these diseases can be prevented or delayed by regular exercise — cycling, for example — and that exercise is therefore one of the biggest predictors of life expectancy.  But while a great many people in the UK would like to be able to make their regular short journeys by bicycle (not so much because they worry about their health, but because it’s cheap and simple), very few do.  The overwhelming reason people give for not cycling is that the roads are far too uninviting: because they’re full of fast moving and badly driven motor vehicles.  Every time somebody chooses to drive a car, the rest of us get none of the benefit, but we do get dangerous, intimidating, noisy and smelly streets, in which normal people will never want to ride a bicycle.

That’s just to list the obvious ways that other people choosing to drive has negative health consequences for you and me.

I was reminded of all this because today the Association of British Nutters Drivers are back in the news demanding their freedoms.  Nurse turned Tory MP, and now parliamentary under-secretary of state for health, Anne Milton said last week that allowing residents to close their residential streets to motor vehicles on sundays so that their kids can go out and play might be a good thing.  The ABD are said to be amazed that their freedom to drive wherever and whenever they like might, for just one day a week, come second to other people’s freedom to choose how to use just a little bit of their own neighbourhood. Once again, the ABD behave like spoiled children, throwing their toys around when told it’s somebody else’s turn to play.

The ideal of the ethical man is to limit his freedom of action to a sphere in which he does not interfere with the freedom of others.  The Association of British Drivers fail at this most basic principle of ethics.

Are we winning?

I’ve just been scrolling through Google Reader clearing a couple of months worth of posts with videos that got saved-for-later when using a mobile connection.  Peter at Pedestrian Liberation asks whether we are winning, citing London Bridge as evidence that maybe we are.

I shot a similar video — above — of London Bridge a year ago almost to the day.  Peter wouldn’t have been able to make same film as me because the night after I shot it, TfL cut down the pedestrian cages (my improvised tripod) on the bridge, to improve the conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.  In the year old film, you see the bridge at a little after 8am — the peak time — on monday 4th january.  I’m not very good at estimating crowds, especially fast moving ones where you can’t see everybody, but there were surely 300-400 people per minute walking over the bridge, plus a couple of dozen cyclists (on a morning so cold that the docks were frozen inches thick) and several stuffed buses.  And what you can’t see in the film is the stuffed tube line beneath, the trains rattling over the neighbouring Cannon Street railway bridge, or the bicycles on the neighbouring and less bicycle-unfriendly Southwark Bridge.  (But nor can you see all the cars on the neighbouring CCharge-less Tower Bridge.)

There are only a handful more private motor vehicles than there are bicycles in the video, with taxis making up nearly half of them, and motorcycles and delivery and tradesman vehicles accounting for most of the rest.  Of the few remaining cars, a lot are probably actually minicabs.  It’s entirely plausible that they were all minicabs.

Yes, this is normal for London Bridge, and has been since at least the introduction of the CCharge in 2003.  London, of course, is not normal, but nor is it a world entirely different to the rest of the country.  As in London, all through the UK you’ll find that most people want an alternative to the blight of the car — to their spoiled streets and miserable hours wasted in jams.  They recognise that they are both a victim and an unwilling perpetrator of this car sick situation, but they don’t think they’ve been given a viable alternative.

On London Bridge they do have alternatives: development is an appropriate density for walking and cycling (at least from the railway terminus to the office); there’s a rail and tube line; and the cheap 24hr buses are too frequent to timetable.  Provide alternatives like these and they get used.  And that’s despite the many limitations that Londoners can happily whine about while not knowing how lucky they are: just imagine how much they would get used if one lane each way were a proper cycle path, and if London Bridge and Cannon Street stations were served by British Rail instead of Southern and SouthEastern, and if the Northern Line had better capacity and better reliability and better stations, and if the City’s streets were more pleasant places to walk around…

This is the most worrying thing about the latest policies of Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond — not so much that we are losing bits of the congestion charge, and other sticks with which to beat the motorist; for motorists already beat each-other more than enough to put normal people off driving — but that the alternatives are under threat.  The media remembers Ken Livingstone for the CCharge, but at least as important was the massive improvement to bus services (then priced at 65p a journey) that he introduced on the same day; Boris is cutting the Western Extension Zone, but more importantly, he is funding this with another bus fares hike, so that a journey is now twice the 2003 price.

Very few people are the kind of capital ‘M’ Motorists, who are never pedestrians; and the majority of people who drive say they would like to drive much less or not-at-all.  But that has been true for a long time, and that alone has not yet got us much closer to “winning”.  Partly this is because we have allowed the tabloids to get away with claiming that most Britons are big-M Motorists, and allowed them to dictate which policies the Motorist will stand for.  Part of turning things around is to get more people to declare: not in my name.  Some ideas for doing that another time.

What is a Motorist?

Last month I seemed to simultaneously hit a mark and touch a nerve with I don’t pay road tax.  Nik raised some dissent:

I do have a bit of an issue with your post painting all motorists as fat, lazy, inconsiderate, unable to change, destroying the environment, and so on. I do have a car, which I use to travel longer distances, particularly to countryside areas that don’t have train services, or whose train services are so inconvenient that using them is impractical. And I do even, occasionally, drive in London. […] I don’t like the ‘at war with motorists’ tone, which is neither constructive nor reasonable, and risks dogmatically painting all motorists with the same brush, and also ignores the fact that outside of densly populated areas such as London, public transport is often patchy to non-existent, and people often have no choice but to drive.

The issue here is the Nik seems be identifying himself as a Motorist.  He seems to have fallen for the line of the tabloid and Top Gear media: that there are Motorists, and there are a few lonely losers and hippies who are either too poor or too misguided to drive.  In fact, just as there are several different kinds of bike user, Jillian Anable’s 2005 paper, ‘Complacent Car Addicts’ or ‘Aspiring Environmentalists’? Identifying travel behaviour segments using attitude theory (PDF link), identified six distinct attitudes to the car amongst day-trip travelers questioned at two National Trust properties near Manchester.

Motorists — the active advocates and pillars of Motorism — amounted to less than half of the car owners and drivers.  Motorists themselves can in turn be divided into two categories.  The Die Hard Drivers “are fond of cars and car travel, believe in the right to drive cheaply and freely and have negative feelings towards all other travel modes.”  Meanwhile, the Complacent Car Addicts “admit that the use of alternative modes is possible, but do not feel any moral imperative or other incentive to alter their car use.”  That is, there are lazy and selfish Motorists, and then there are actively evil Motorists.  No blog post is ever going to change their minds about using a car.

The section that Anable unfortunately chose to call Malcontented Motorists, are in fact not Motorists — not advocates of Motorism — at all.  Drivers in this section ” perceive a high number of constraints to the use of public transport despite feeling increasingly frustrated and unhappy with car travel and believing that they have a moral responsibility to change behaviour.”  They sound very much like the people for whom “public transport is often patchy to non-existent, and have no choice but to drive.”  These people don’t need a blog post to change their minds: they need a bus or bike path that goes where they need to go, or a better planned town that still has local jobs and shops.  (They might appreciate a blog post that helps them achieve that, though.)

The final section of Drivers are the Aspiring Environmentalists, who “have already substantially reduced their car use largely for environmental and health reasons but appreciate the practical advantages of car travel and are thus reluctant to give up ownership entirely.”  I am guessing that Nik is in this category.

Here are the numbers, also including the remaining categories — those who don’t drive out of choice (5) or necessity (6) (remember though: while the 6 categories probably apply throughout the population, albeit with blurred boundaries, the proportions given here are specific to the sort of people who decide to visit National Trust-owned historic buildings and gardens near Manchester on a certain day half a decade ago):

  1. Die Hard Drivers, 19%
  2. Complacent Car Addicts, 26%
  3. Malcontented Motorists, 30%
  4. Aspiring Environmentalists, 18%
  5. Car-less Crusaders, 4%
  6. Reluctant Riders, 3%

Acknowledging the varied attitudes of people who drive, the relative frequencies of those opinions, and the receptivity of those people to change their opinions and behaviours, is important for understanding things like the demand for speed cameras and segregated infrastructure (and the likely scale of opposition to these things), and the best way to pitch transport and town planning campaigns.  More on those issues in later posts.

As for whether declaring a “war on the Motorist” is helpful or constructive: our “about” page explains where the phrase came from, and our tongue-in-cheek adoption of it.  If a reader actually believes the tabloid reports of the “war”, I don’t think there’s much we could ever do to help them. Motorists are not our audience, and were never intended to be.  But we welcome all you other car users as allies, fellow victims of bad planning and policy, intelligent enough to recognise the absurdity of the idea that there has been a “war on the motorist”.