A building in town is being renovated. There is scaffolding around the exterior, and around that is some wooden boarding, protecting the public from the building work inside.
There’s an entrance door to the site; it has a warning to the public on it – BEWARE OF DOOR OPENING.
But interestingly, on the other side of the door, the inside, there is no warning to the builders, cautioning them to beware of the public that might be on the other side of the door, when they open it.
So the warning sign here is directed at the innocent members of the public who might get hit by someone swinging a door open. Conversely, there is no warning not to do harm for the people swinging the door open in the first place.
The passive party, not posing any risk, are being told to watch out; the active, causal party, with the potential to do harm, receive no such warning.
This is, of course, deeply familiar stuff for anyone who pays close attention to the way ‘road safety’ in Britain typically works. The people at risk – pedestrians, people on bikes – are told to ‘look out’, to make themselves visible, to get out of the way, to ‘stay back’, while the warnings for the people actually posing the danger are negligible or non-existent.
Against this background of transferred responsibility, ‘balanced’ road safety messages start to seem reasonable – what could be wrong with asking both parties to be responsible? – until you actually dig down into the detail.
What do I mean by ‘balanced’? Well, this kind of thing –
Peter Hendy: “If we are going share the roads – everyone has got to look out for everyone else”
— Tom Edwards (@BBCTomEdwards) May 20, 2014
That’s the Commissioner of Transport for London there, suggesting that ‘road sharing’ relies upon people on foot, or on bikes, looking out for lorry drivers (drivers, note, not lorries).
In a similar vein, Kent Police seem to think that road safety is merely a matter of ‘playing your part’, regardless of the risk you pose.
California Police chose to launch ‘Bike Safety Week’ by suggesting that people on bikes had ‘the same responsibilities’ as motorists –
— CA Traffic Safety (@OTS_CA) May 22, 2014
South Yorkshire Police chose to opt for a message of ‘mutual respect’, while Sussex Police – like Peter Hendy – evidently feel that the ‘look out for each other’ angle was the most appropriate. Preposterously, the news story for ‘looking out for each other’ is illustrated with this photograph.
All these messages amount to the same thing, memorably described by David Arditti –
The message is that “There are two sides to every story”, and its up to lorry drivers and cyclists equally to take responsibility for preventing crashes by understanding one another’s needs and behaving with appropriate caution. It implies everyone’s equally to blame when things go wrong, and the solution is shared understanding.
This completely false ‘balance’ amounts to a sloughing off of responsibility, a shifting of blame to parties who cannot possibly ‘look out’ for motorists, in the sense of preventing harm. And I suspect the ‘look out for’ message is spreading precisely because it is conveniently ambiguous.
Namely – ‘look out for’ means both ‘take care of’ as well as ‘watch out!’ (If I were to yell ‘look out for the lorry’, it’s probably quite obvious I’m not asking you to take care of it).
When Peter Hendy or Sussex Police urge cyclists to ‘look out for’ motorists, they are not urging a duty of care for motorists by those who happen to be cycling (because that would be silly) – in fact, they are simply stating that those who are cycling should ‘watch out’.
So while ‘drivers and cyclists looking out for each other’ sounds all lovely and harmonious, it actually conveys two very different messages with the same words, while simultaneously presenting an impression of ‘balance’ that resonates with the general public as one of equal responsibility.
It’s a horribly slippery concept.