Instead of blaming individuals, fix the system

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 processingespecially 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.

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11 Responses to Instead of blaming individuals, fix the system

  1. Pingback: Instead of blaming individuals, fix the system

  2. Steve says:

    Entirely agree. I was shocked at the weekend by this “crossing” that I passed.
    https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@54.6505231,-1.4642289,3a,75y,338.6h,82.32t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sAhNTW4j1rsMJCnZW1ufCPg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656
    On the right is a footpath from the village, on the left a (very nice) country park. Someone in a wheelchair, with a helper, was attempting to cross. There was so much traffic they never had a chance. Unwilling to put the wheelchair user into harm’s way the helper was darting into the road waving, attempting to get traffic to stop or slow to allow her companion to cross. It was pretty futile. Even when traffic is stopped by the flow of the roundabout, it backs up past the crossing point and an able-bodied person may risk dodging between the stopped cars, a wheelchair user barely has the room or space to do so. Appalling (lack of) design & thought.

  3. Ben says:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I first saw this video on a new website. A lot of the comments criticised the boy, which was depressing but not unexpected, but I was struck by the fact that this was clearly a pedestrian crossing point. From some comments on twitter, and from google maps, I discovered that this crossing over the A38 links together residential areas, a local school, and parks.

    It’s been designed to dump children (and everyone else) onto to 60-70mph dual carriageway, with no safe crossing and almost no warning to drivers. And, as you say, it does this while forcing anyone on a bike to face the wrong way to see oncoming traffic.

    It’s no less than a death trap, and if my children had to cross here each day to go to school, I’d be extremely worried.

  4. sgeller2012 says:

    The picture depicts a well-maintained, attractive subway, no doubt well lit at night. UK subways are never like that. They are dank places with broken glass on the cycleway, the lights aren’t working, there are dodgy people hanging about and quite often homeless people sleeping in them. They act as a barrier rather than an enabler for cycling. Unless these problems can be fixed – difficult when local authorities have no money to do anything about them – they’re not going to work in the UK.

    • SomeDumbDeer says:

      I know plenty that work well in the UK, Cambridge has a good few subways that function fine

      • OnYerBike says:

        Does it? I live in Cambridge and the only underpass I can think of is the one at the Elizabeth Way/Newmarket Road Junction, which I think is pretty awful. It’s a pain to get into from the road, it’s a pain to get back out onto the road, and the ramps are steep and have tight corners. I try to avoid that junction, but if I have to use it I end up just going around the roundabout with the other traffic.

        • SomeDumbDeer says:

          I use that one very frequently and think it’s pretty good. I tend to come up from the route along the cam, up Wallnut Tree Ave, then down East Road. Ramps don’t seem too steep for me, and the corners just mean it’s a good idea to ring the bell a couple times.

          Though the point where it joins East Road going south can be a bit hair-raising, with the cycle path going onto the road side a the same time cars turn left into a layby. I’ve had a close call there.

          There’s also the small Milton Road one under the busway, which I used daily, and seemed fine unless it filled with water when the drains burst

          • OnYerBike says:

            It’s not completely unusable, and I can see that if someone is not a confident cyclist or for certain movements (yours being a good example) it would be preferrable. But I certainly wouldn’t tout it as great subway design or (going back to the original comment) anywhere near as user friendly as the one in the photo.

            Ah yes, I had forgotten about the Milton Road one (don’t go that way very often). That one does seem ok, if a little pointless since it serves only to cross the busway (and buses aren’t very frequent anyway). Cyclists (and pedestrians) turning right from the busway onto Milton Road towards town are directed to cross the busway at a signal-controlled crossing anyway!

  5. D. says:

    It doesn’t really matter whether the speed limit is 60 or 70… The fact that someone thought it was acceptable to put in place a crossing with no light control or bridge or underpass or anything to go across that road, that they expect people to just take their chances across a road where traffic is travelling at least 60, is mad. But, god forbid that we hold up motor traffic, eh?

  6. D. says:

    This crossing here – https://goo.gl/maps/u7Gsivf3xgT2 – was only put in a couple of years ago.

    The road is a main commuter route into Bristol, with a 50mph speed limit, with the crossing sandwiched between two bus stops – one on each side of the road – and near the bottom of a dip in the landscape. Both sides of the road are shared-use paths, only really used by cyclists.

    And yet the Powers That Be decided that they couldn’t put a controlled crossing there because “it might hold up the traffic” (I know this, because this was one of my comments made at the ‘consultation’).

    So, cycle commuters have to wait and wait and wait until there’s a gap in the traffic on the road if they wish to cross (usually, you have to wait until the traffic lights controlling traffic coming off the M5 motorway at the entrance to Easton in Gordano, a couple of miles ‘behind’ the streetview point of view, have changed, and then until that break in traffic has reached the crossing point, which really isn’t ideal…).

  7. This brings to mind a recent death that was written about in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/apr/05/i-became-a-killer-fatal-road-accident-forgiveness. The crash happened on the A148, here: https://goo.gl/maps/vCpKdP89nmE2. The victim, Michael Rawson, had got off the bus and needed to cross two lanes of traffic to reach his sheltered accommodation. Even with the speed limit for this stretch of road dropping to 40, that’s basically impossible for anyone with mobility difficulties.

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