Asking the wrong questions

At the weekend I went along to the Cyclenation/Cycling UK Campaigners Conference in St Albans, where I was one of many people making presentations to a large audience. My one was on Sustainable Safety, and afterwards I chatted briefly to TfL’s Brian Deegan about the Dutch approach to road and street design. He mentioned in passing how he gets complaints about people cycling jumping lights, at certain junctions – the implication being that these ‘bad’ users need to start behaving, and need to be punished more, to make them behave.

But Brian’s response to the problem was, and is, completely different – he told me that he replies

‘If so many are jumping lights, what is wrong with the junction?’

This is a core element of Sustainable Safety – it seeks to tackle ‘bad behaviour’ not at a personal or individual level, but by seeking to understand what actually lies behind so many people breaking the rules, and then examining how the environment can be changed to reduce rule-breaking, or to eliminate it altogether. To take a ‘red light jumping’ example, it might be that people are having to wait two minutes to cross a simple junction. A sensible way to solve that problem would be to reduce wait times. It might also be the case that people are jumping lights to turn left, because they know they can do so safely. Again, a sensible solution to that ‘problem’ is to formalise and legalise this behaviour through design.

This doesn’t just apply to people cycling; it applies to all modes of transport. For instance, if lots of people are breaking a 20mph speed limit, then the long-term answer isn’t enforcement and punishment, but, instead, addressing the design of the road so that 20mph becomes the natural speed for the vast majority of drivers to travel at.

I don’t think this kind of approach has really taken hold in Britain, at all. We remain focused on individual actions and behaviour, and on ‘personal responsibility’, rather than taking a more systematic approach, one that is centred on the role of authorities in designing environments that keep us safe in the first place, even when some of us continue to behave badly. Just last week, the Secretary of State for Transport responded to a question about the rising toll of road deaths in Britain as follows

 A trend in the wrong direction is an unwelcome one. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Andrew Jones, who is in his place alongside me, has responsibility for road safety. He is actively engaged, and will continue to be actively engaged, in looking at measures we could take that will improve things. We will look at different investment measures and different ways of educating motorists and those using the roads

And, more explicitly from the junior Minister –

This is what a primary focus on ‘education’ is really about – a shifting of responsibility for safety onto the people negotiating unsafe environments, by those responsible for the design and functioning of those environments. Simply looking at ‘different ways of educating’ all the people using the roads (which seems to carry with it an admission that current ‘education’ isn’t really working) avoids this fundamental responsibility to build safety into our road and street environment, by making them forgiving, predictable, and without exposing human beings to large differences in mass, speed and direction. ‘Education’ is not, and cannot ever be, a substitute for safe environments.

Safety built into the physical environment.

Safety built into the physical environment. Not much personal responsibility required here.

An unsafe cycling environment. Humans mixed with heavy vehicles travelling at high speed.

An unsafe cycling environment. Humans mixed with heavy vehicles travelling at high speed. Personal responsibility is not a solution here.

This failure to ask the right questions, and come up with the right solutions, is epitomised not just by a focus on ‘education’ but also on what I would call ‘trinkets’ – things like helmets, lights, reflectives, clothing, and so on. In much the same way as with ‘education’, the process involves shifting responsibility onto the user, and ignoring basic environmental problems. Instead of examining why Road X is unsafe to walk along in dark clothing, we urge people to wear  reflectives. Instead of examining why pedestrians wearing ordinary clothes can’t negotiate the streets in your urban area safely, we hand out lights to them.

Perhaps the most powerful example of trinket-based logic is the paper helmet which has recently hit the headlines, because it has won an award.


The man who awarded the award – James Dyson – says that this helmet

solves an “obvious problem in an incredibly elegant way”.

If the problem is ‘how do we make something that looks a bit like a cycling helmet, but is really cheap, folds down completely flat so it goes in your bag, and can then be thrown away’, then yes, this is a solution to that ‘obvious problem’.

But it clearly isn’t a solution to the actual problem of prevent people riding bikes from coming to harm or being seriously injured. How can it be? It’s some folded paper, loosely attached to the top third of the head.

If we really care about keeping people riding hire bikes safe ‘anywhere they go’, we need environmental solutions, infrastructure that keeps those people separated from fast and/or heavy moving motor traffic, wherever they choose to cycle. Not paper hats. And the same goes for handing out tiny reflective bits of plastic to children.

These are not structural solutions; they are not even actual solutions. They are a distraction. The wrong questions are being asked, and the wrong answers are being given.

This entry was posted in Absurd transport solutions, Helmets, Infrastructure, Sustainable Safety. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Asking the wrong questions

  1. Bmblbzzz says:

    So you’re drawing a contrast between a focus on environmental and societal solutions versus an individual behaviour focus. There is definitely quite a bit to think about here. It seems to me – at the moment, I’ll give it some more thought – that both approaches are needed together. The societal focus is the only way to bring about a shift in patterns, but the individual is also needed because even in the most orderly society, there are always individuals who are “badly behaved”.

    • jovanoviciznatege says:

      I think your last conclusion is wrong. Think about – for example – a “badly behaved” man walking through pedestrian zone. What is the problem that he would cause ?

      • Bmblbzzz says:

        That depends on the form his “bad behaviour” takes. If we concentrate on traffic, in this case foot traffic, the obvious ones are walking into people and objects so causing injuries and damage, which might happen because he was not paying attention or going too fast for the situation (running) or malicious; it might also happen because someone else was not paying attention (head in phone) and he chose not to avoid them. More widely there is a whole range of things he could do, either deliberately or accidentally, some of which are crimes and some of which are merely deemed socially unacceptable.

        In one sense, your question is back to front; if you cannot identify the problem caused, then there was no misbehaviour. But in another sense it raises an important question: how do we define such behaviour? This is not merely philosophical pondering, it has direct application to road traffic; if a road user infringes a traffic law and there are no consequences, no effects and no witness, does it matter? For instance, a pedestrian crossing the road on a red man in a country where this is illegal on an empty street at 1a.m.? If that does not matter, does it then matter if a cyclist rides through the red light at a pedestrian crossing after the only pedestrian has crossed? Does it matter if a motorist drives a car through at the same moment? Clearly you can choose to draw a line to be enforced at all times, or only in case of consequences (victims) or somewhere inbetween…

        Wherever you draw that line, the point I wanted to make in my first post is the one in the first paragraph above: there will always be some who, wilfully or through carelessness, infringe the rules and norms.

        • jovanoviciznatege says:

          How many cases of “walking into people and objects so causing injuries and damage” or similar stuff that you mention, have you ever heard about ? Do you think it is something worth talking about/maintaining traffic police/using law enforcement ?
          I will answer instead of you – definitely and clearly NO. You and me would never bother chatting on this blog about that, because it just is not a problem. Because pedestrian zones are safe by design, and when you have no motor vehicles, whole traffic problems story become meaningless.

          • Bmblbzzz says:

            I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make. Are you saying that removing traffic – motor traffic – eliminates danger to other road users? If so, I think we’re largely in agreement but I’m not sure why you picked the example of a pedestrian zone; a house or office would be equally applicable. In fact, there are examples, elsewhere on this blog I think, of drivers losing control of their vehicles and crashing into houses. When I say the individual [focus] is also needed because even in the most orderly society, there are always individuals who are “badly behaved”. that is the kind of behaviour I have in mind.

            To take a less dramatic example, a couple of weeks ago this blog featured a Dutch through road and its design to eliminate not only conflict between different types of vehicle but also among motor vehicles; so the speed limit has been equalised and overtaking banned. Despite these measures, it is a certainty that people will try to overtake anyway and eventually someone will cause a head-on collision (or a crash avoiding it). If the road is made a dual-carriageway with one lane in each direction, it is equally sure that eventually someone will cause a collision using the hard shoulder to overtake on the inside or will simply run into the back of another vehicle through impatience (following too close) or simple lack of attention.

            In short, physical design of both environment and vehicles (or other machines) is an excellent way to reduce risk, but danger is still present from human failings both accidental and deliberate.

            • chuwasg says:

              Long answer doesn’t mean it’s right.
              Design safe road environment = safety for all users. Such level of safety can never be achieved in dangerous environment, no matter how much you invest in education/enforcement/punishment.
              Improve road design for entire city takes time, and many do not have the patient, they then turn to teach the vulnerable users on how to navigate the existing dangerous environment, which can be done relatively quickly to a few. They consider that is “the solution” and forget it is only a limited, temporary bypass.

              • Bmblbzzz says:

                So my answer was too long, as you don’t seem to have read or understood it. Nowhere have I advocated a dangerous environment.

            • But how is giving reflective stickers to children, or focusing on individual behaviour as you term it, going to stop people from being hurt when someone drives a car into their home?

              You argue that we need to focus on both, yet cite many examples of people putting others in danger which you think support the idea of focusing on individual behaviour. It doesn’t. You’re rendered your own argument meaningless.


              I can’t protect myself by behaving correctly because I can’t rely on others to behave correctly. Thus the ONLY thing that will make a difference is removing as much risk as possible from the environment. Because MY actions won’t affect the actions of others one bit.

              The only way MY actions make ME safer is if I stay at home and avoid all other people.

      • Bmblbzzz says:

        I’d like to explain this without distractions. Every environment and system we design involves humans, because people act within the environment and operate or are operated on by the systems. Humans are fallible and occasionally even malicious. Therefore we need to take into account human characteristics (such as greed and anger) when developing these environments and systems. Some situations require everyone to be highly trained (eg air traffic control) some are designed to be safe for all (say a children’s playground) and many, like roads, mix the two. This means there has to be an element of personal responsibility on the trained user to use the system in the way for which it was designed. This responsibility usually starts with formal training (how do I operate this system?), encompasses continual informal learning (what are the norms of behaviour in this situation?) and if necessary can ultimately include criminal justice. In the road context, design around human fallibility probably began with everyone on one side of the road (initially more as a means to avoid and settle conflict than to avoid collisions) and is now reaching autonomous vehicles (removing the human as operator but retaining human design and use), the most obvious example of formal training is learning to drive, and for informal learning it would be modification according to actual behaviour (eg the rules say I have to give way here but that driver has stopped and is signalling me to go).

        TL;DR: Environments are meaningless without people.

  2. Clive Durdle says:

    It makes me wonder what level of education ministers have had – have they never done a health and safety course? Education and ppe are last resorts, only to be considered if risks and hazards cannot be designed out – which they can be.

    This misunderstanding feels similar to that described by the social and medical model models of disability, maybe misunderstanding of equality is at root?

    • paulc says:

      “only to be considered if risks and hazards cannot be designed out – which they can be.”

      but they’re completely unwilling to spend money on that, instead we get a pittance spent on paint, shared used paths and ‘education’ campaigns…

  3. Health and safety…possibly, the three of the most hated words. They assume that someone else is always responsible and encourage the compensation culture. Having ridden many thousands of cycle miles over 30+ years and having fallen off through both my own and others ‘faults’ I’ve never had recourse to resort to ‘suing anyone’. Ultimately, living is a dangerous occupation and one that will inevitably lead to our deaths – we don’t have to assume that our end is always going to be someone else’s fault. Too much time is spent thinking about how to make things safer….people are the danger. People cause accidents – not road layouts or speed limits or red lights. Education will change nothing. People are always the problem – be they the cyclist, the pedestrian, or the driver.

    • Matthew Phillips says:

      Health and safety at its best should be about examining the environment that allowed the incident to happen and seeing if there are cost-effective ways of improving the environment to reduce the likelihood or eliminate a repeat of the incident.
      Education and training are insufficient when people can so easily make mistakes, whether that be an error of judgment on the part of a cyclist getting too close to a lorry, or an error on the part of the lorry driver.
      This has long been recognised in the rail industry where ever since the mid-nineteenth century HM Railway Inspectorate investigated accidents and recommended installation of safety devices that eliminated errors, such as signalmen being prevented by interlocking from clearing a signal if the points were not set the correct way, and, more recently, drivers being prevented from driving through red signals that they may have missed seeing.
      The equivalents on the roads are not brighter lights (I get blinded by the brightness of some car headlights these days) but better street design, to keep conflicting flows separated in time and/or space. Yes, individual responsibility is still necessary: we need the car drivers not to speed at 60mph along the dedicated off-road cycle track. But the chances of falling victim to a a selfish idiot is very much reduced if you are not sharing space with him or her.

    • meltdblog says:

      Peoples behaviour may be the problem but their choice of vehicle changes the outcomes radically. Further, accidentally running into a pedestrian with a car is unlikely to injure the driver so they have even less incentive to avoid doing it.

      Segregation of transport modes is a big safety win:
      and while it requires redistribution of space between the transport modes that its self can increase throughput for all users:

    • pm says:

      And the severity of the consequences of the accidents people cause depends overwhelmingly on the equipment they are using at the time, and of the environment in which they are using it.

      I really don’t get what point you think you are making.

      Sometimes someone else _is_ responsible. Sometimes it _is_ someone else’s fault, especially if you are in a situation where that other person has far more power than you do. People are allowed to push for an environment that doesn’t put them at the mercy of someone else’s errors. If you don’t like that – tough.

  4. Pingback: Asking the wrong questions | As Easy As Riding A Bike

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  6. rdrf says:

    Accommodating “bad behaviour” HAS been accepted as part of highway (and vehicle ) design for decades – it’s just been for errant DRIVERS. (Sorry for using blocks). Felling roadside trees, installing crash barriers, anti-skid surfacing, “frangible” lamp posts which don’t hurt the occupants of vehicles driven into them – the list goes on. And for motor vehicles it’s the same: seat belts, crumple zones, air bags, collapsible steering wheels – all there to accommodate the “badly behaved” driver.

    And all this despite knowledge that such accommodation exacerbates such errant behaviour.
    So: not too much to ask for errant cyclist behaviour to be pandered to.

    • Mike says:

      It’s frustrating how this concept is so readily understood when it comes to cars, but so comprehensively ignored when it comes to bikes.

      When drivers veer off the road again and again a specific turn, it’s obvious that the government should install better streetlights and a guardrail. Yet when cyclists are injured in exactly the same way (turning lorry) at exactly the same intersection (Bow roundabout), it takes months of advocacy for the government to change the infrastructure. The concept really isn’t difficult. It’s only when it applies to cyclists that everyone pretends that it’s complicated.

  7. congokid says:

    No one has picked up on Northumberland County Council’s decision to team up with Co-op Funeralcare to promote its Be Safe, Be Seen campaign above, which amounts to an unspoken verdict on just how effective they expect these badges to be.

    Co-op Funeralcare’s National Community Manager Mark Chappelhow bravely laid the burden of road safety firmly on the schoolchildren, saying:

    “It’s important during this time of year that kids take even more care when travelling to and from school. We hope that … the reflective badges keep thousands of children safe.”

    You may well hope, Mr Chappelhow, because it doesn’t look like Northumberland County Council is planning to make its roads any safer for vulnerable road users for the foreseeable future.

    Still, it could turn out to be a bumper winter for business…

  8. SpacePootler says:

    My late father once noticed my squirmy younger brother sitting at the dinner table, a steak knife resting on a plate and pointed straight at him. He reached down and grabbed my brother to hold him still, who reacted predictably by squirming harder to get away. This escalated until my mother came in and asked what he was doing. My father explained about the sharp knife.

    My mother looked at him like he had a bird on his head, reached over, and moved the knife.

    Some people restrain the child, and some people move the knife. Let’s try to be movers, not restrainers.

  9. Pingback: Asking the right question | Vision Zero London

  10. Andrea says:

    You may be interested in this follow up: “Asking the right question”

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