Tag Archives: road safety

Be nice to the ASA

I am sure that if you have not already, you will soon be reading an account of the Advertising Standards Authority’s embarrassing adjudication on complaints made about Scotland’s “Nice Way Code” series of “won’t everyone just play nice on the roads?” adverts. Briefly, of all the things that the ASA could have picked up on in the Nice Way Code, the offending footage ruled to be irresponsible by the ASA are (a) showing a roughly realistic proportion of people riding bikes with and without helmets, and (b) showing somebody riding a bicycle more than 0.5 metres from the side of the road. Other people will give you the full story.

I’m not an expert on advertising regulation, but I guess the first ruling sets a precedent against any future advertising featuring helmetless cycling. Things like TfL’s Catch Up With The Bicycle campaign. A depressing but not entirely unpredictable result of the lazy fact-free assumption on helmets that seems to have put down deep roots in this country (and started growing the fearsome thorns of shouty emotional anecdote). The second ruling is the more interesting and hilarious of the two. This one effectively precludes any future advertising of the standard long-established government guidance on road positioning, as taught in the official “Bikeability” cycling proficiency training. Like the advertising TfL and the DfT (under the Think! brand) are currently running on buses and billboards in London and several other English cities. But again, others will have more time than me to explore the amusing implications of the decision.

No, I only really popped into the discussion to say one thing, in the spirit of the Nice Way Code: be nice.

Obviously someone at the ASA has made a spectacular cockup, and they deserve a day’s mockery and ridicule for such an achingly absurd, side-splittingly ludicrous joke of an assessment.

But, occasional slapstick stupidity aside, I’m sure the ASA are not bad people.

Clearly some junior adjudicator got out of his or her depth, read one document they didn’t entirely understand, and remained ignorant of the actual relevant research and guidance in the field. Sure, there should have been processes in place to prevent errors of such a preposterous magnitude from ever getting so far as publication, but I have no doubt that with the blunder now evident to all, the ASA will be working fast to fix the mistake, and will ensure all is put right before the DfT and TfL are forced to put their adverts on hold while more time and money is wasted formally challenging it.

I’m sure they’re good people, and I’m sure they’ll have this one under control in no time. So be nice to them.

By all means clog up their system with satirical reports intended to mock, and with serious test cases designed to force contradictions, but do be nice.

That’s the Nice Way Code, after all.

Railway safety doesn’t need scare quotes: it works

Do you get annoyed, when it rains or there are autumn leaves on the ground, that your railway station becomes polluted by so many posters and announcements advising you to watch your step, and warning you about the “event of weather”?

I imagine Simon Jenkins must get very irritated. In his latest drivel for the Guardian, Jenkins tells us that it’s impossible to make travel “safe”, and we shouldn’t try. He cites the example of the Santiago de Compostela train crash, in which 79 people died last month. An accident, which nobody intended to happen, and for which it would “not be sensible” to “seek fault”.

We must accept that accidents will happen, Jenkins tells us. Slips, trips and falls and catastrophic high-speed train crashes are inevitable, and if we try to stop them, we might merely make the problem worse. The same is true on the roads, he says, where reducing regulation, sharing space, and replacing instruction signs with ambiguity empowers road users to take more care.

But, as seems to be a habit, Jenkins rather picked the wrong example to prove his point. There’s a reason why I mentioned those apparently inane announcements about being careful not to trip over, and there’s a reason why our stations have become polluted by them. Slips, trips and falls now account for a majority of the serious injuries to staff and passengers on Britain’s railway, and resulted in half of the deaths in the 2012/13 operational year.


Think about that for a moment. A transport network carrying 1.5 billion passenger journeys at speeds now up to 140mph in vehicles with stopping distances measured in the kilometres under high-voltage power lines on complex tangles of steel rails over thousands of bridges and viaducts, all of which requires constant maintenance by a massive workforce using huge arrays of heavy machinery. And the biggest cause of serious injury and of death (aside from suicides and trespass) is falling over.

Four passengers died on the railway in 2012/13, and two members of staff died — though as with the single workforce fatality in the preceding year, one of those was in a motorway car crash on the way to a work site. The passenger fatalities were two trips, an assault, and one death at the “platform/train interface”. That is, two thirds of the fatalities on the railway had nothing to do with actually being on the railway, and could as easily have happened on a walk in the park — in fact, are probably more likely to happen on a walk in the park.


The fact is, far from accidents being inevitable, the Santiago de Compostela crash couldn’t happen here. Our signalling systems alone, not to mention the wider railway system and culture of safety, would not have allowed a driver to let his high-speed train travel so vastly overspeed into such a bend. That’s the exact sort of signalling that automatically protects and stops trains that Jenkins warns us against. And it works. Far from the 79 or more fatalities that Jenkins’s “safety systems are dangerous” thesis would predict, last year was the sixth consecutive one without a single fatal train crash. Zero people have died in a British train crash since a Glasgow-bound Pendolino came off the tracks at ill-maintained points in Cumbria early in 2007, resulting in an impressive back-flip by the lead car and a tumbling slide down the embankment by those following. And, astonishingly, just a single fatality of one elderly passenger, thanks to the strength and safety engineering of the modern carriages.

And as is always the case when there’s a British train crash — or even just a (not so) near miss — a thorough investigation followed, lessons were learned, investment was made in new technologies and working practices were revised to ensure that nothing like it could happen again.

Stopped clocks and even Simon Jenkins are right sometimes. We can learn a road safety lesson from a train crash. It’s just the exact opposite of the one Jenkins suggests. Accidents don’t just happen. We can stop them if we have the will.


The telling death of a railwayman

Here, to keep you occupied while I work on something else, is a very short extract from a first draft of something else. It’ll need a bit of work. The context is that it comes amongst a long discussion of societal and judicial attitudes to dangerous driving, including the right to drive and our reliance on cheap road haulage and distribution with lax regulation, and illustrated with several of those case studies with which we are now all too familiar. (The pictures aren’t part of the extract, I’ve merely taken them from the Rail Safety and Standards Board Annual Safety Performance Report, and from STV news (warning: autoplaying audio/video)).

In 2011, a railway worker was killed. Just one. His name was John McInnes, an infrastructure maintenance worker who looked after lines in the north of Scotland. McInnes had thirty years of experience in a job that can come with all the hazards of working alongside fast trains, around heavy machinery, on high structures and amongst live wires. He was killed on the evening of the fourth of July 2011, while travelling to a work site on the Highland Main Line at Kingussie, only five miles from Crubenmore, where this whole story started. But McInnes did not die on the tracks. Accessing the work site by the A9 trunk road, his van and a car crashed with enough force to spark a horrific inferno that took firefighters 45 minutes to control.

This ironic tragedy highlights the already stark contrast between safety on the roads and safety on the railway. For more than a decade, railway workforce fatalities have been measured mostly at the low end of single figures, and five years have now passed without a single passenger or crew member having been killed in a train crash.

There wasn’t always such a profound difference between the safety cultures of the road and the railway. The navvies who built the Victorian railways were treated as expendable labour by powerful company owners who fought safety regulations, not only during construction, but also in everyday operation. Even when the railways were nationalised in the late 1940s, the toll on the workforce was still more than 200 every year. But strong unions demanding their right to safe workplaces, and public opinion demanding change when things go spectacularly wrong — as when major crashes occurred during the Railtrack era — has ensured that, these days, many layers of safety are built into every part of the railway.

The railway industry investigates not only all of the deaths on the tracks, but also the injuries and near misses below them in the Heinrich Triangle. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch makes extensive inquiries, consults the detailed operational records, and reconstructs events, leading to fifty page reports highlighting the lessons that are to be learned, the working practices to be revised, the rules which must be better enforced, and the new technology which should be adopted. The occurrences that it investigates are mostly what we would call accidents. Nobody was really to blame, and it is not the intention to find anybody to blame, only to prevent anything like it from happening again.

And so we have developed signalling systems which make it almost impossible to accidentally crash a train: train positions are automatically detected and the system keeps them apart by lengths of several train braking distances, refusing to allow the signaller to put trains on collision courses and automatically triggering the brakes if the driver fails to stop at red. Engineering work is checked and double checked and measured automatically by high-tech high-speed engineering trains on rolling schedules. In the event that engineering work must be carried out during live traffic, the engineering gangs work with dedicated trackside lookouts using flags and air horns to warn of approaching trains, while drivers sound their own horns until all workers have ensured their position is safe and signalled a clear acknowledgement in reply.

The railway has developed a culture in which staff at all organisational levels respect the fact that the railway is a hazardous work environment and that they must take seriously their responsibilities for the safety of their colleagues and passengers. But it did not achieve its enviable safety record simply by demanding respect and courtesy, and nor did it do so by imposing harsh penalties on workers whose momentary misjudgements ended in catastrophe. It designed a system which forgave those misjudgements: one which accepts that when humans are in control things will go wrong, so the system should be designed to allow humans to make minor mistakes and recover from them before there are any consequences.

In 2011, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch did not have to investigate a single worker death. John McInnes was on the road when he died at work, and when you work on the road, you’re still expendable labour.

Unskilled and unaware of it (re-post)

It was pointed out to me that I haven’t posted anything for weeks. It will be a few more before the project that has been taking up my time is out of the way. Here, then, is something I wrote way back in November 2010, which seemed relevant given the latest Department for Transport “please play nice on the roads” marketing campaign. If I were writing it today, I’d mention a million other things, and probably do away with the sarcastic transport mode tribalism that amused me so when this blog was young. But I’m not.

In the War Bulletin this week I mentioned a study that found drivers to be at fault in 87% of car/bicycle collisions.  According to the press release and coverage, the study included (but was not limited to) giving cyclists in Melbourne helmetcams, and analysing the footage of 54 “events”, including 2 collisions.  It sounds like the study has a number of limitations — it’s difficult to draw general conclusions about collisions from only 2 of them, and the results were only ever going to apply to the helmet-law and vehicular-cycling environment of Melbourne, and even then only to experienced cyclists who (presumably) were aware that that their own behaviour was being recorded.

The study was conducted by the Monash University Accident Research Centre, who I am sure did a good job.  But unfortunately nothing resembling it appears in their reports and publications, and I can find no evidence that the original research has been made public yet.  (Allowing the world’s media to uncritically churn your press release without being able to see the actual details of the work — and perhaps more importantly, before your fellow academics are allowed to review what you have done — is rather bad form.)  So there’s not really anything more we can say until we can see the study itself, and we may yet find that everything that has been said was wrong.

But the reported findings do fit with what we already know about accident causes and driver behaviour.

The Motorist attitude to their own collisions and near-collisions is a particularly interesting field.  When one suggests that speed cameras might be a good thing, for example, somebody will always pop up to declare that they have been driving at 90mph for decades and never caused a single accident, because they are a perfect driver who knows exactly when speed is appropriate. And it might be true: some people are good drivers and some people are bad drivers.  Trouble is, the driver himself can never know which he is: all drivers believe themselves to be above average.  Everybody is seeing bad driving, but nobody admits to doing it.

In Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt documents the details of the phenomenon of drivers unable to recognise their own lack of skill.  A large part of it he puts down to a lack of feedback.  For example, in the Monash helmetcam study, there were a mere 2 collisions, but there were 6 near-collisions and 46 “other incidents” (the classic Heinrich triangle).  These “other incidents” correspond to those situations where we notice people driving badly.  They occur because the driver failed to spot a hazard or failed to recognise as a hazard something that they did see.  By definition, if they did not see or did not recognise, the driver will never have been aware of the situation.  They will reach their destination assuming that they had done a great job, oblivious to the bad driving that had been recorded.  That’s probably what happened in 52 out of the Monash group’s 54 “events”.

And when the driver does finally notice that they have just been in a near collision, they can congratulate themselves for having the skill to have avoided an actual collision.

Thus reassured of their own driving skills, on the few occasions when they do get some feedback, they find ways to dismiss it.  That horn honk wasn’t aimed at me, or if it was, it must be because the other driver is an impatient egotistical bad driver who wouldn’t recognise good driving like mine.  The police pulled me over because they have a quota to fill, or because they’re anti-Motorist, not because I was driving dangerously.  After all, I already know that I am not a dangerous driver.

And then they crash, and it was an accident, bad luck, a momentary loss of concentration, beyond one’s control.  They couldn’t have caused it, because they already know from their experience and their long record of not causing accidents that they must be a good driver.

The evidence from driving simulation experiments shows that drivers can’t accurately remember what was happening in the lead up to the crash — what they saw and heard, who else was on the road and where and which order and when they appeared; what they were thinking and where they were looking and when they last checked their mirrors.  So they can unconsciously fill in these details with whatever makes them feel the least uncomfortable.

When drivers are shown videos of their driving (from helmetcams, or, as Vanderbilt discusses, Drivecam), most of them are surprised to discover that they have many more bad habits than they were aware of.  And that can create some uncomfortable cognitive dissonance for them, with attempts to deny or justify their behaviour, or, as with speeding, attempts to redefine it as safe.

It’s important to know these things about driver psychology if you’re trying to create a marketing campaign to make drivers be nice, or design ways to rehabilitate careless and dangerous drivers (how does sending a dangerous driver on their way with a £60 fine help anybody when the driver doesn’t have the skills to figure out what they are doing wrong?), or wondering whether to send your helmetcam footage to Roadsafe to be passed on to the offending driver.

And it’s important to know these things about driver psychology when deciding whether motor vehicles can ever share nicely with vulnerable road users.

After Westminster Hall, where next?

I have been neglecting this blog, both pulled away by other projects and watching with awe the unfolding of The Times‘ Cities Fit For Cycling campaign. I will assume that all of the readers of this blog have managed to keep up with those events through other sources, and have signed up and lobbied their representatives.

On Thursday afternoon, of course, the Cities Fit For Cycling campaign reached Parliament, with an excellent turnout of MPs enthusiastic for cycling and an astonishing degree of cross-party agreement about the things that make cycling unsafe and unattractive, and the sort of solutions that should be pursued. Unlike Boris “keep your wits about you” Johnson, the assembled MPs recognised that fast and busy roads are the main barrier to people making journeys by bicycle, and they recognised that Britain’s roads are not a natural and immutable phenomenon but things that we can alter to make less dangerous and more attractive for cycling.

There is, of course, only so much that backbench MPs can do, and the picture of Dutch-style cycling in Britain that one-by-one the MPs painted has so far been ignored by those who actually have the power to make a difference.  It is up to ministers to turn the debate into action, and the minister Norman Baker’s response to it all was, of course, embarrassing. Early Day Motions and backbench debates don’t, by themselves, change anything, and as Robert Davis and Cycalogical both point out, we should not be naive and think that the mere fact that this one debate has occurred means that we have received any of the things that were asked for.

But nor should we be too cynical and pessimistic: exciting things are happening. For as long as I’ve been writing about transport, cycling campaigners have tried to tell me that there is no point in asking for high quality cycling infrastructure because there isn’t the political will for it: there aren’t the numbers or the demand. Well the events this past year, and these past few weeks especially — the growing and multiplying flashrides and protests, the rise of cycling as an important London election issue, the Times campaign, and now the remarkably large show of MPs who really get it — have suggested to me that there are the numbers and there is the demand for change. Yes, promises have been made and broken before. But we know much more now — not least, of the alternatives that are possible. Now is the time to learn from those past failures, but not to learn that failure is inevitable. We must make sure that the issue remains at the top of our MPs’ agendas, and we must now set out exactly what ministers need to do, so that they can not fob us off with insufficient funds spent on inadequate things. This could be our “Stop The Child Murder” moment, but only if our efforts are sustained and focussed.

Norman Baker and David Cameron have already claimed their support with many words and few actions. It is, of course, obvious when poor Norman Baker is fobbing us off with a few pennies, barely enough for tiny isolated local incremental improvements; or when our MPs are trying to pass the buck to under-resourced local authorities. It needs to be equally obvious what real activity would look like.

The Times have set out the things that they think should be done in their manifesto. It’s a nice try, and identifying specific tasks for government — so that we can see clearly when they are or are not getting on with it — is exactly what we need to be doing. But The Times‘s list is not quite right. Chester Cycling has set out a better set of objectives for infrastructure, alongside an excellent set of principles for guiding policy discussions and keeping us on track.

My own list of tasks for ministers would place infrastructure at the top — because it’s the biggest, most expensive, and highest impact task — and look something like this:

Norman Baker’s department must get to work revising or replacing the engineering manual for cycling infrastructure — one of the most important promoters of crap cycle facilities and an active impediment to the import of international best practice — and changing the way that highways departments think about building for the bicycle (with the help of The Times‘s suggested “cycling commissioners”, perhaps). The Times are correct to identify junctions as the top priority for rebuilding, but unless we change the engineering manuals and culture, the rebuilt junctions won’t look any different from before. I will go into this in great detail in forthcoming posts.

The Times are absolutely right that funding needs to be redirected to cycling — more, even, than they specify (and taken from out dated relief road schemes). But of course large sums should not be handed out just to be wasted on substandard stuff that will need fixing later. In the first year, while a better engineering manual is being prepared, spending should be focussed on ensuring that we have the right expertise — the sort of expertise that Cycling England was just beginning to build up when it was cut — and that local authorities are ready to spend the money on something that actually sounds sensible and worthwhile when it does become available. Meanwhile, since almost everything that the DfT does is dependent on the Treasury thinking it’s a good idea, I imagine it would be sensible for Baker, Greening and The Times to be specifically working on those who hold the purse strings — making the case for serious and sustained investment.

The Times are right that 20mph should be the default urban speed limit, cycle lanes or not. 20mph is increasingly the urban speed limit, and most authorities would like it to be far more widespread, but 20mph zones are held back by the expense and bureaucracy of implementing it street-by-street. Given that this government is a fan of all that “libertarian paternalism” stuff — the latest being to make workplace pensions opt-out rather than opt-in — they should make 20 the default urban limit. Authorities would then have to go to the expense of opting out, consulting and erecting signs on the few roads where the appropriate limit is 30mph, rather than on the very many where it is 20.

The Times rightly identify big trucks as a problem. They suggest some sensible enough technological solutions to the danger they pose — alarms, sensors, safety bars, and the like — but bizarrely suggest that they only need to be present on trucks “entering city centres”. Vehicle design standards are generally handled by the EU these days, and my guess is that the EP is probably the best place to pursue this. However, there are steps that this government should be taking: standing up to the haulage industry’s relentless demands for bigger and heavier trucks, and pushing those big trucks back out of the city centres and narrow streets that should never have been expected to accommodate them.

There is one thing conspicuously absent from The Times‘s manifesto, given their focus on road danger and the many tragic stories that have been raised both in the newspaper and repeatedly by MPs who had lost constituents. They say nothing about getting dangerous drivers off the road. It is abundantly clear that in recent years we have developed a massive problem with the investigation of dangerous driving. Between us we could compile vast lists of hit and run incidents and near death experiences that have all ended in the police giving up because of lost files, untraceable number plates and the vehicle owner claiming not to have been the driver. Meanwhile, when cases of dangerous driving do make it to court, the sanctions are woefully inadequate. If the government were serious about tackling road danger, ministers from the DfT, Home Office and Justice department would be working on reforms to the policing and sentencing of dangerous driving.

Those are the areas where I think we should be expecting to see action from ministers, and I’ll go into more detail about each in later posts. The other items in The Times’s manifesto? Can’t argue with gathering more reliable stats on cycling: the “audits” that we’ve had in the past have usually been far from robust. Little to say about training: the funding for it is already adequate and protected, as ministers like to regularly re-announce (though I’m not sure why, given that vehicular cycling training has only been developed as a way to cope with their failed roads policies). And sponsored cycleways? A policy championed by Boris Johnson is the last thing cycling needs.

Prevention and cure

While organising notes, I stumbled upon this quote I bookmarked years ago, from the great Harvard cancer biologist Judah Folkman:

A pediatric surgeon in Boston just finished a difficult operation. To relax, he went to the Charles River and sat down on a bench. Suddenly, he heard cries of ‘Help! Help!’ and saw a person drowning. The surgeon jumped into the river and pulled the person to safety. He lay exhausted on the banks of the river and again heard, ‘Help! Help! ’ He glanced at the river and saw another person drowning. Despite his exhaustion, he jumped into the river and pulled the second drowning person to safety. Now, he was truly exhausted and lay on the ground huffing and puffing and again heard, ‘Help! Help! ’ He raised his head to look toward the river and saw a third person drowning, but he also noticed two basic researchers walking by the river. The surgeon shouted, ‘Colleagues, you must help! This is the third drowning person in the river in one afternoon! ’ The researchers looked at the river and then at the surgeon and said, ‘Three people drowning in one afternoon? This is very interesting! We’ll walk upstream to see who’s throwing them in!’.’’

(I think actually that it would work better if cast with public health researchers in place of basic researchers. The basic researchers would be too busy describing in obscure detail of the currents of the river, while translational researchers designed a better buoyancy aid for those currents.)

Folkman was applying the metaphor to his own field, cancer, but it works equally well for death and injury on our streets. The “road safety” approach to the problem has people studying the currents and advocating hi-viz vests and bicycle helmets, while spending billions on air ambulances and major trauma units. The “road danger reduction” approach goes upstream and asks why we are allowing large volumes of fast moving vehicles into the places where we live and work and play and learn. And it’s notable that in medicine, it’s the surgeons who think that preventing injury means bicycle helmets, and the public health researchers who think that preventing injury means calming and removing cars and trucks.

Here are a few of them: Danny Dorling talking about the open sewers of the 21st century; Harry Rutter’s Street Talk on moving towards a healthier city; and Ian Roberts, acting badly, on The Energy Glut. And you can hear Robert Davis talking about “road danger reduction” at London South Bank University on thursday next week.

During the 20th century, life expectancy lengthened by 30 years in the developed world. 25 of those years are attributable to public health intervention — to prevention rather than cure. But prevention disproportionately helps the poor and frequently hinders the rich. Guess which branch of medicine gets all the money.

Blijf uit de dode hoek

“Stay out of the blind spot”

Where have I heard that before?

Fixed that for you.

But these posters were repeated on a dozen lamp posts here:

It is, surely, irrelevant? Unlike London’s “superhighways”, there can’t be many Dutch roads left that could create this kind of situation, especially not in Amsterdam, where I spotted the avenue of posters. The kind of roads that carry big trucks generally give bicycles their own dedicated space; and the city streets where bicycles and traffic mix generally do not allow such big trucks. And in the few situations where bicycles and trucks could mix like this, the truck driver would not overtake the cyclist while preparing to make a turn (sorry, what am I talking about, these situations are always the dead cyclists’ fault for positioning themselves on the inside of a truck, never the surviving truck drivers’ fault for passing a cyclist while turning).

It’d be interesting to know how big a problem this really is in the Netherlands — and why the Dutch government (for I believe it was they) thought it important to put up posters about it.