12 January 2012

Road crash [tbc]

This posting was intended to be part of a longer essay. What is currently presented here was written in sections over several days. The piece was then left, abandoned really, as a draft for three and a half years, awaiting my return and completion. I returned to it on 12 June 2015, but completion still has a wait.


I recently read several BBC news articles about road traffic accidents in the UK. Not only did I variously concur, sympathise and empathise with the sentiments implied / expressed, I found myself rehearsing an array of thoughts and reflections for which a weblog posting would be an adequate response. I hope that by writing this posting I shall not simply express well-formed ideas and perhaps arrive at a deeper understanding, but that I shall also reach out towards some thoughts and ideas that are currently beyond my grasp. I hope, too, that my chosen focus will bear such scrutiny, and that I am sufficient to the task.

The articles are presented as a mini-website, uploaded / updated on Tuesday 15 and Thursday 17 December 2009. In contrast with some BBC mini-websites that I have read, such as the focus on UK energy use and production, which consist of articles written over a long period of time and later brought together under an umbrella concept, this series of articles appears to have been conceived and written as a single project. There is a page of editorial, Death on Britain's roads, giving facts, headline statistics, analysis and opinion. There is a fascinating and impressive series of graphical representations of statistics. There is an equally fascinating and impressive 'mashup' utilising an interactive Google map of the UK showing the precise location of every road traffic accident involving death, searchable by police authority and postcode, giving details of casualties, and some with a link to a contemporary news report. There is a sequence of short articles called Anatomy of a crash, an in-depth report about a single road traffic accident based largely on the police investigation and interviews with the victim's widow. In addition, the mini-website presents headline statistics, photographs, and video reports. The mini-website's range of different kinds of resources gives it a substantial and well-thought-out feel.

The annual death toll on UK roads is more than 2,500 deaths: 2,538 in 2008. Over the past ten years nearly nine people each day have died on Britain's roads: 32,298 lives lost, equivalent to the death of everyone in Monaco. One of the points made in the editorial is that despite the individual tragedies that each death represents to surviving relatives, friends and colleagues, within British society as a whole these deaths are ignored, taken for granted, become invisible. In contrast, train derailments, ferry sinkings and plane crashes receive considerable news media and public attention, even when few passengers are killed. It would seem, too, that in the latter tragedies responsibility and blame are sought and established, whereas road traffic accidents are seen more as an occupational hazard, a fact of life. Four points:

1. The most obvious point to make about this distinction is that when a road traffic accident occurs, at worst a handful of people die. In contrast, an aeroplane crash might involve scores or casualties, and a train smash hundreds. Our attention is inevitably drawn towards events that involve the death of more people.

2. My perception of risk is not based on likelihood of an accident but on the consequences of the accident were one to occur. Rear-end shunts on the road are relatively common, but do not commonly result in death. On the other hand, train wrecks are uncommon but when they do occur, it is likely that people will die.

3. If I am the driver of the vehicle, I usually feel safer than were I in the hands of someone else. The classic example is 'sympathetic braking' by the front seat passenger in a car. It is easy to imagine that, as a car driver, I might notice a hazard in time to avoid it. In contrast, when I am a passenger in an aeroplane, there is absolutely nothing I can do to alter the course of what will happen.

4. The public focus in the 1999 Ladbrooke Grove (UK) rail crash was on the fact that one of the two train drivers allowed his train to pass a signal at danger (SPAD). I have no experence of driving a train. How hard can it be to sit in the driver's cab and drive the train: you don't even have to steer? The Wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ladbroke_grove_rail_crash gives details of the Cullen enquiry's findings that show, amongst other things, that the driver who passed a signal at danger was only recently trained and highly inexperienced. Although I never believed that flying an aeroplane was the easiest of activities, it was only when I took a series of lessons to fly a light aircraft that I came to appreciate the intense complexity involved in flying a jet airliner. Anyone can row a boat on a river or lake, and it is not hard to learn to sail a dingy. However, people who captain super-tankers, cruise liners and passenger ferries, are required to take many exams and have years of experience. My point is that, from a position of ignorance, it is all-too-easy to imagine that little extra is required to control the vehicles in which tens or even hundreds of people can die at once.


Perhaps one of the things many people realise is that using a motor vehicle on the road involves making a huge number of safety-relevant decisions, so many, in fact, that the only way to use the road is to remain oblivious to all but the most obvious safety issues. I recall giving up driving a car for a while when I was unable to cope with the anxiety I felt about all the things that could go wrong. Road users do not expect to get every decision right, and witness time and again the consequence-less result of poor decisions: driving round a bend too far onto the other side of the road, but no vehicle was approaching in the other direction; not aquaplaning on a wet carriageway despite travelling too fast for the road/ weather conditions; driving through traffic lights that recently turned red; incautiously turning into the path of another vehicle that is travelling sufficiently slowly so that no collision occurs. Perhaps, just as people feel reluctant to talk about life insurance and to draw up their last will and testament, part of the resistance to wearing seat belts was about not wishing to face the possibility of being involved in a road traffic accident. However, seat belts point to where people typically place reliance for their safety: on car manufacturers: crumple-zones, airbags, anti-lock brakes, ice-warning alarms. Modern vehicles are brimming with devices to help us to avoid a collision, including the long-established external lights, mirrors and horn; and to improve our safety in the event of a collision, including the trend towards the use of well-armoured 4 x 4s.

[... to be completed]

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