Road Danger Reduction: The New Agenda

This article was published in 1995, in Newsletter 3.

‘Is It Any Safer?’ – Road Safety Conference, Leicester, 9 Nov. ’95

Why has decades of ‘Road Safety’ campaigning achieved nothing but increased Road Danger? Why, despite endless policy proclamations to the contrary, is traffic pollution and congestion getting ever worse? Why do we need a Cycling Campaign?

The short answer is: cars. The necessarily longer answer takes in an ever-more motorised society, driven by a political economy and ideology that afflicts all our lives, and which both feeds and is informed by far-reaching strategies of state not only on national transport, planning and energy production but on health, employment, policing & law, education, housing, taxation, ‘defence’ (wars are waged in consequence) and almost every environmental issue imaginable. That which was invented just 100 years ago has become a monster long out of control. NOT, note, the internal combustion engine itself, but motor hegemony, the car culture, carmageddon. There are other names, but what matters is the power it exerts, and this is why to confront it is an essentially subversive act. And to subvert the car culture, it might be said, is the highest form of cycle campaigning.

“Road Safety”

The traditional Road Safety establishment is incapable of confronting the problem properly because it is itself compromised, directly or ideologically, with the culprit industry. Thus it promotes devices to protect motorists from the consequences of dangerous driving while instructing children to flee the streets and cyclists to adopt pathetic measures to save themselves when being run over. The Highway Code (though necessitated by motoring behaviour) is generally ignored, save for the purpose of castigating cyclists. ‘Road Safety’ produced the term ‘Road Accident’ to describe the serious and sometimes fatal result of people using lethal machinery recklessly or irresponsibly, fostering the notion that violence at the hands of criminals is somehow unavoidable or excusable when performed with a car – a view confirmed in the courts with depressing regularity. it proceeds at base from an acceptance that motorists have a right to expropriate public space (the streets) and threaten others while in their ‘private’ vehicles; ‘Get out of the way of cars!’ is the road safety officer’s unswerving theme.

Dissenting voices

Opposition to motor domination is nothing new. 60 years ago and more the iniquity of the terrorisation of the streets by the at that time vastly smaller number of motor vehicles inflicted on much larger numbers of bikes and pedestrians was recognised and contested in arguments similar to those resurfacing today. As the cycling and pedestrian organisations fought and lost their battles in the 1930s, levels of road carnage attained an all-time high. Thereafter, and through the post- war decades of increasing mass-motorisation, unrestrained roadbuilding, urban destruction and the progressive decline of public transport, casualties fell – not through any improved motoring behaviour, but because people were learning to ‘get out of the way’. In fact, people physically absented themselves from the streets in increasing numbers. (Even in the last 20 years, cycling in the UK has declined by 24%; among children it has declined 40%.)

To subvert the car culture is the highest form of cycle campaigning

Motor domination, and all it entailed, seemed complete, until the perception dawned, increasingly through the last 10 years, that ever-growing car use is simply not sustainable – not in any terms, not merely from an altruistic conservationist standpoint. Coincidentally, certain researchers in the UK transport and planning professions started to question the pervading ethos of motoring ‘freedom’ in the context of social cost and harm to others; John Adams was notable for developing the theory – now generally acknowledged as fact – of risk compensation, illustrated in his exposure of the fallacy of car seatbelt legislation as the archetypal example of an officially-unquestioned ‘safety’ measure which is at once consumed as extra leeway for risk-taking and results in a net increase in road danger. Others, in particular John Whitelegg and Mayer Hillman, developed these ideas to show how vehicle design, road engineering and ‘road safety’ wisdom have colluded to increase danger and restrict mobility and access – especially of the young, the old and the unmotorised one-third of the population – all in the name of Safety. In his landmark work ‘Death on the Streets: Cars & the Mythology of Road Safety’, Robert Davis brought these ‘heretical’ views together, showing comprehensively how when deference to motorist privilege is added to the promotion of road transport the result is unprecedented disaster – not least including some 25 million violent deaths worldwide. Until recently, these were lone voices crying in a car-infested wilderness.

Road Danger Reduction (RDR)

The first Road Danger Reduction Conference, sponsored by the RDR Forum, was held in Leeds two years ago. It brought together for the first time a sizeable body of ‘road safety professionals committed to promoting a new agenda for road safety. This is aimed at reducing road danger at source and promoting equity and accessibility for non-motorised road users‘. It attracted little attention, but the activists persevered, forming loose alliances with other groups who found common cause from different angles. These can broadly be described as on one hand the environmentalists, represented by such as Transport 2000 and Friends of the Earth, opposing unsustainable transport, its greenhouse gas production and its urban and rural despoilation; and on the other hand the more direct victims of motoring violence, as represented by RoadPeace, a charity offering support to bereaved families and friends who, moreover, are resolved to seek justice on the roads and from the legal system which so often denies it (see ‘Road Accident’, above).

The Leicester Conference

Some 200 delegates, mostly local authority road safety officers, engineers and planners representing over 100 councils, attended the 9 November conference. The leading address was given by Bob Davis, chief ‘guru’ of the RDR lobby, in excusably upbeat mode, quoting the highway engineer who blames ‘dangerous trees’ for ‘causing accidents’. Equally too contemptible to merit discussion, ‘the Great Coach Seat Belt Panic’ got mention in passing. He recalled a conversation with Transport Minister Stephen Norris, who urged Davis ‘not to confuse road safety with environmental issues'(!) The RDRF has every intention of ‘confusing’ both these and all other issues that impinge on the quality of life on the public highways and byways. They are, of course, inseparable.

Other speakers cited examples of success to provoke envy – or shame- in the Cambridge delegate: Copenhagen and Z�rich largely liberated from motor traffic; Strasbourg ‘redesigned’ around a new tram system; 77% of commuters delivered by express busway in Portland, Or.; the City of Edinburgh Rapid Transit guarantees half the journey time of cars. Some cities in northern Europe enjoy cycling budgets greater than the UK total, and some are promoting ‘shoals of bikes’ as ‘mobile traffic calming’ (i.e. as Cambridge once was).

Workshop discussions revealed the new approach:

  • On Highway engineering & planning: away from ‘accident reduction’ – that statistics-based method. Towards the ‘relief of intimidation, fear, anxiety or danger’. The new council transport funding structure offers scope for incorporating RDR agenda into major road schemes.
  • On Road Safety Education: No more Green Cross Code or Tufty Clubs. Children are not the problem; look first at who creates the danger, which is no immutable fact of life but can be changed; this will emerge as we move from child- centred survival instruction to curricular integration, which must first be taught to the teachers.

Lest it be thought this reflects more idealistic posturing than practicality, the table below is worth pondering. York DC is at the forefront of the movement; arguably, York is the most cycle-friendly city in Britain.

To seasoned cycling campaigners the RDR agenda may represent little that is new in ideas and outlook. What is new is that it is no longer confined to the province of cycling, environmental and fringe groups but is gaining momentum in Town and Shire Halls across the land, and faster than some may realise.

Changes in road casualties in York compared to the rest of the UK (% change from 1981-85)

Average (1988-92) Single Year (1992)
York UK York UK
All -24% 1% -43% -3%
Pedestrians -18% -8% -41% -18%
Cyclists -18% -8% -33% -13%
Car Drivers 9% 35% -3% 40%
Car Passgrs -7% 16% -12% 14%
Motorcyclists -44% -42% -67% -57%

Before Leicester, 35 local authorities had already signed up to the RDR Charter; more will follow, hopefully along with Health Authorities. Every council transport head, and every road safety department, is now in possession of the New Agenda information pack, so ignorance will no longer serve as excuse for inaction. Our task must be to press the County Council to adopt it and, if not, demand to know why.


Note: A copy of R Davis’ book is available for borrowing by CCC members. A few copies of the ‘Guide to RDR’ are still available, £1 at the Stall.