Doubtless many of you will have seen this video of a ‘near miss’ on the A38 in Bromsgrove, in which a child narrowly escapes serious injury, thanks to the quick reactions of a driver – a fireman, Robert Allen.
I wasn’t the only one to notice that the way this incident was framed – both on social media, and in the media more generally – focussed entirely on human actions. On the one hand, the quick thinking, forward planning and skill of the driver, and on the other, the mistakes and foolishness of the children.
Framed in this context, the only way to prevent near misses (or even serious injuries and fatalities from occurring in future) is to ensure that all drivers are as quick-thinking and careful as this one, and also to ensure that children don’t behave impulsively, and don’t make mistakes and misjudgements.
But unfortunately both of those things are actually very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Children, especially younger children, have serious problems judging the speeds of approaching vehicles, due to their difficulty in perceiving visual looming (HT AndyR_UK). On top of that they will inevitably be impulsive, fail to concentrate, or become distracted. Equally, drivers won’t be paying attention 100% of the time. They will also get distracted. They are fallible. They will not all be as cautious and as quick to react as Robert Allen. Because they are human beings, not robots.
So the only realistic way of preventing these kinds of incidents from happening in the future is to design the danger out of the crossing. We can’t rely on human beings not do stupid things, or to not make mistakes, because it’s not who we are. The only rational response is to minimise the chances of collisions occurring in the first place, and to minimise the severity of those collisions if they do happen. The alternative – attempting to get children to behave properly in the context of this type of crossing – is nothing more than applying the flimsiest of sticking plasters to a gaping wound.
If we look at the location, it’s a little bit ambiguous whether the posted speed limit is 60mph or 70mph, because the crossing is at exactly the point where two lanes (60mph limit) become a four lane dual carriageway (70mph limit).
But whether it’s 60mph or 70mph doesn’t really matter – as Ranty Highwayman observes, either way, these are still very high speeds for children to be processing, especially where drivers will be distracted by the process of merging back down to one lane in the in the oncoming direction, or focused on accelerating up to 70mph as they move into two lanes from one in the facing direction.
On top of that, we have the pedestrian barriers – presumably installed with the intention of stopping people from cycling straight out into the road – acting to steer anyone cycling up to the crossing into a position parallel to the road, where any oncoming motor traffic will be directly behind them.
Rather than naturally facing that oncoming traffic, children (or anyone else cycling here) will have to look right back over the shoulder to process it. Frankly the entire layout is a recipe for casualties, which the ‘Sign Make It Better’ warning does nothing to fix (not least because it’s only about 50 feet from the actual crossing – not a great deal of help when it comes to alerting drivers of the potential danger).
I’m not sure when this road was built, and the period in which it was thought this was an appropriate type of crossing for a road of this context – but it’s far from unique.
There are several similarly lethal crossings of 70mph dual carriageways in West Sussex, usually the result of existing routes or lanes being severed by the construction of new roads and bypasses, with absolutely no consideration given to the safe passage of people walking and cycling across them. I can think of at least three on Horsham’s northern bypass, which was built in the late 1980s. Below is just one of them.
There’s housing behind the trees on the left hand side of this location, and a railway station a couple of minutes’ walk down the lane to right. It’s not only the danger that is infuriating – it’s the fact that people could be walking and cycling, easily, to and from these locations, but have these horrendous barriers put in their way. The road simply shouldn’t have been built like this – it should have had underpasses integrated into it during construction, to allow people to cross it freely, and in safety.
The Bromsgrove example is perhaps even more pressing, however, as the road is a clearer example of severance – with housing on both sides of the road. If the A38 were a Highways England road, then under the IAN 195/16 standard (which I’ve covered here) a grade-separated crossing would be a mandatory requirement for a 60mph limit. If that’s not possible, then the speed limit should be lowered, the motor traffic lanes should be narrowed significantly, and the crossings should involve clear sightlines, with only one lane crossed at a time. Something like this kind of thing, which I saw on a distributor road in the city of Zwolle.
There are no signals; this is just a simple priority crossing, with cycles having to give way to motor traffic. However, only one lane has to be crossed a time, motor traffic speeds are much lower, and the visibility is excellent, for all parties. This really isn’t rocket science.
If the council wish to retain a 60mph limit, or four lanes of motor traffic, then that obviously means that human beings should be separated entirely from the road, to insulate them from the increased danger that attempts to cross such a road at-grade would involve. An underpass is the obvious answer in that traffic context.
That would plainly be an expensive undertaking, but really there’s no other safe way of addressing the severance posed by a multiple lane road with such a high speed limit.
Obviously I don’t know the local situation, but I suspect it may be much more appropriate to ‘downgrade’ the road to an urban distributor, with single lanes in each direction, separated by a median, and with a much lower speed limit. That would allow the ‘Zwolle’ type of crossing to be employed, and safely. But there are many other places where that is impossible, or at least undesirable. The Horsham example is one location where the traffic volumes and road context – an explicit bypass – should really necessitate grade separation.
To a large extent, we’re reaping the harvest of decades of road-building and planning with little or no thought for the safety and convenience of anyone who wasn’t in a motor vehicle – people cycling and walking along these roads, or attempting to cross them. It’s going to be difficult and costly to undo that damage. Perhaps it’s not surprising, therefore, that we all reach for the superficially easy option of attempting to change human behaviour, rather than changing the system, when we’re confronted with incidents like the one in Bromsgrove.