Thursday 27 June 2013

Safer cars = more dangerous roads

The picture below is a Google Earth image of a short stretch of the A283, Milford to Chichester road, mid-way between the West Sussex villages of Northchapel and Petworth.

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What you are looking at is a road re-alignment (straightening) which must have been implemented a couple of decades or more ago – I remember how it used to be but I no longer recall when it changed.  The old alignment has now, partially, become a lay-by.  In fact I think the old stretch which has been replaced extends beyond the southern end of the lay-by to emerge where the two houses on either side of the road are at bottom of frame.

The old road was narrower and kinkier – I have often noticed that roads look a lot straighter seen from directly overhead than they do when looking along their alignment, from behind the wheel of a car or handlebars of a bike.  The “bypass” was, and is, wider, straighter, and less obstructed by trees or land contours.

I don’t actually know why the road was re-aligned.  Possibly it was an accident black spot, or at least predicted to be one, or maybe this was just to permit vehicles to maintain greater speeds.  If it was intended to increase safety, then I am sure of two things:  the safety improvements envisaged were aimed entirely at the drivers and occupants of the motor vehicles driving through, and; their safety will not have been enhanced for the simple reason that “risk compensation” will have kicked in – drivers will adjust their behaviour to take advantage of the “improvement” to the point that the safety element has been entirely negated.  As for any road users who are not occupants of motor vehicles however, the result will have been to make the road more dangerous, from the get-go.

In fact, this may not be a particularly good example:  I don’t actually remember seeing anyone walking or cycling along here in the long distant past, and I certainly don’t see any such now.  Even if I had any reason to walk or cycle here – other than my car breaking down on the roadside – it would take sheer desperation to persuade me.  I merely use it to illustrate a point, that making cars safer makes roads more dangerous.

There is of course another aspect of this conundrum:  passenger cars have become progressively “safer” – for their occupants – as the years have passed, with their Euro NCAP scores improving annually, and manufacturers addressing the score in marketing and advertising as families become more tuned in to road “safety”.  While I believe Euro NCAP also measures vehicle safety from the perspective of persons outside the vehicle, I have seen little evidence that manufacturers address this beyond their statutory obligations, which don’t appear to amount to much.  In fact, the trend to 4x4s with boxy shapes and high wheel-bases is also a trend to greater danger for anything which the car hits.  I suppose we should be thankful for small mercies, that “bull bars” seems to have gone out of fashion, and I have given up my stock of home-made mirror stickers reading “Q: What’s the difference between a 4x4 with bull bars and a porcupine?  A: [well, you can guess the rest]”.

Whatever.  Again, risk compensation comes to the fore.  Many, many years ago it was already being said that drivers of Volvos and Saabs – at the time the marques with the reputation for being the pioneers of crumple zones, safety cages etc – took greater risks, with more speeding, tailgating and flashing from behind on the motorway.  Possibly that was partly due to their popularity with middle-aged male senior sales executives (fingered, at the time and for all I know still, as the most likely demographic to be drunk-drivers) but the sense of complacency about personal safety was also cited.

So it comes as no great surprise to me to learn today that KSIs in road casualties have fallen slightly overall, but for pedestrians and cyclists they have risen relentlessly, again last year continuing a trend of some years, and faster than any asserted increase in cycling kilometrage.

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