Transferring responsibility

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.

Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 21.54.05

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.

Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 21.54.28

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 –

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 –

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.

Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 22.14.42That’s a man cycling on a slip road on a 70mph dual carriageway, ‘looking out’ for the man behind the wheel of the lorry bearing down on him.

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.

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21 Responses to Transferring responsibility

  1. Mark Hewitt says:

    You make a good point however your first example is not a good one. On building site anyone attending site will have to go through a safety briefing – this doesn’t matter if you’re a builder with 30 years experience, everyone has to have a briefing on a new site. That would no doubt include a warning of “be careful opening that door” – thus no sign is required. Whereas a member of the public does require such sign as they aren’t part of a controlled group as on site.

    • I’m sure there is a safety briefing, but that doesn’t really explain why there isn’t a sign, even as a reminder.

      After all, ‘hard hats must be worn’ signs are very common, despite safety briefings telling builders to wear them (to take just one example).

    • paulc says:

      there should be a sign on the INSIDE of that door warning people to take care when opening it. Ideally there should also be a means of widening the view out by means of a fresnel lense or somesuch stuck on the inside of that window.

  2. Mark Hewitt says:

    Also it’s interesting that in the USA they had a spate of “Share the road” signage, which was meant to convey to drivers that cyclists have as much right to the road space and to share it accordingly. However drivers took it as an admonishment to the cyclists that they shouldn’t get in the way of car traffic, so they’re being taken down.

  3. Simon H says:

    If you’re walking parallel to the hoarding then the sign on that door is only visible… when it’s opened in front of you!

    • Michael J says:

      and anyone blind or partially sighted will not even know that there’s a door there until they get smacked in the face with it if someone forgets to check

  4. Joel C says:

    What’s wrong with the picture? You can clearly see he’s got his wits about him. Oh, and he’s wearing a hi-viz vest – harmony assured!

  5. I think you’ve done a good job of articulating the “problem” here and why all those new stickers and signs I keep seeing on the back of vans, lorries, buses etc advising “Cyclists stay back” don’t quite sit well with me. Now I’m all for cyclists being reminded that they should be careful around these vehicles with blind spots (although their appearance on small vans which shouldn’t really have many blind spots seems a bit too “victim blamey” for me).

    What I’d quite like personally is for all of the vehicles bearing these stickers to actually show a little consideration at times. It’s all well and good having a sticker on the back of a bus advising me to stay back, but when the driver rushes to pass me only to pull into a bus stop a few yards up the road I can’t help but think I’m not the one who needs reminding about sharing the road responsibly.

  6. Brandon says:

    “Look out” is good advice if used in the correct direction, with people in larger vehicles looking out for people in smaller ones, on bicycles, and on foot. Even bicycles should look out for pedestrians in this sense.

  7. Simon says:

    It’s an even better analogy than you imply. The door is designed to cause danger to the public as it opens outwards. Making it open it inwards would eliminate most of the danger, but no-one thought to design it sensibly. Like our roads.

    • Andy R says:

      Looking at the second picture it seems there is no room between the scaffolding and wooden hoardings to allow the door to open inwards, this is the compromise.

      • Paulc says:

        stop making excuses for them…

        It is not beyond the wit of man to have arranged a gap in the scaffolding to accomodate inwards opening doors. In fact if you look closeley at the second pisture, it even appears to have the space there as well.

      • Mark, South Australia says:

        Sliding door? No need to open into the path of anyone. As Simon said, no-one thought to design it sensibly.

  8. Jitensha Oni says:

    Want to cycle? That’s your “look out”.

    On the content side, such messages as you highlight tend to presuppose a certain type of bike rider, i.e. someone who is capable of fully looking out for the other and taking responsibility, in other words, a person very much like the holder of a driving license. The young, the inexperienced and the elderly don’t get a look in, at least explicitly. In addition, while most people of similar age do drive and cycle considerately most of the time, there is a) a proportion that never will; b) a proportion that won’t have heard the message because these campaigns are too limited in reach and if heard, are soon forgotten; and c) another proportion (probably the biggest) that won’t fully concentrate all the time. And of course, telling prospective cyclists or parents of same that they or their progeny will need to look out for multitonne vehicles isn’t going to get them cycling.

    On the use of English side, the Labour Party are consulting on their living standards policy* and the undercooked cycling bit comes under the banner “Encouraging Safer Cycling”, which finesses the issue of actually encouraging cycling by putting in that weaselly “safer”.

    PS The door notice is not terribly useful for the visually impaired, or someone glued to their phone.


  9. rdrf says:

    I think it can be put simply: we all have a duty to not endanger, hurt or kill other people. It is an equal duty.

    The motorised routinely fail in this duty to a far greater effect than the non-motorised. Furthermore, the fact of them so doing has been officially accepted and colluded with by the building of “forgiving” environments for them, whether in cars (crumple zones, seat belts, collapsible steering wheels, air bags etc.) or the road (cutting down road side trees, crash barriers, anti-skid etc.).

    So calling for pedestrians and cyclists to “fulfil their part of the bargain” is somewhat ludicrous. Unless you base your approach to safety on what motorists themselves think is their inherent danger to others – through having driver liability in collisions with pedestrians and cyclists, high levels of law enforcement and deterrent sentencing for the motorised , plus appropriate engineering of cars and highways to reduce their danger to others – you have a grotesque attempt to disguise the potential lethality of the motorised compared to the non-motorised.

  10. Jake says:

    If this mutuality concept informed vehicle design, the driver would project prominently from the front of the vehicle.

    He would be exposed to and fully aware of the conditions. Vehicle speeds would plummet, braking distances would be religiously observed. People would seriously consider walking or taking a bus (whose driver would take the risks on their behalf).

    Perhaps a few would see the benefit of having a less massive vehicle, like a skateboard or bicycle.

  11. pm says:

    Any pedestrian who gets whacked by that door has only themselves to blame for their lack of a pedestrian helmet!

  12. Branko Collin says:

    The location of the sign reminds me of a famous bit of supreme court jurisprudence in the Netherlands, the Jet Blast Decision. One of our airports, on the island of St Maarten, borders right on the sea and tourists make it a sport to hold on to the fence while departing 747s sand blast them.

    One time a Swiss woman enganging in this folly was blown onto the beach where she hit her head on a rock. She promptly sued the airport. Although successive courts disagreed with her, the Supreme Court surprisingly afforded her a minor victory on the point of warning signs. The court felt that signs can only be judged sufficient if they can be expected to be effective.

    In the words of the judges, “in order to decide if a warning can be considered a sufficient protection against a certain danger, it has to be determined if the warning will lead to either an action or the abstinence of an action that will avert the danger”.

    (The woman still lost her case though.)

  13. Cherill W says:

    Would love to know what IS the best way / words to convey a balanced message.

  14. Andrew says:

    Clever insight and a very accurate perspective on so much of the problem with bureaucratic responses to seeking a solution to the lopsided conflict between bicycles and cars.

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