Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Blinkers, blinders and bloody-mindedness: road safety

Few things are more indicative of how we, as a species, just aren't built to inhabit complex, multi-cultural and diverse societies than the opinion poll.

The latest example, dealing with matters particularly close to my heart, is this piece of actually fairly good journalism from the Courier Mail:
Car drivers cut motorbike riders little slack - research.

To summarise the background: Bikers are dying in greater numbers.

To summarise the poll findings: Car drivers think that bikers have it coming, because they "often witness them breaking the law or taking unnecessary risks".

The bikers' response: "Four out of five motorcyclists (78 per cent) think that car drivers believe they have more right to the roads than riders do ... and 90 per cent say drivers don't look out for them," said AAMI Corporate Affairs manager Mike Sopinski.


Adrian Toscano, from the Motorcycle Riders Association of Queensland, said there were certainly elements of contempt between drivers of two and four-wheel vehicles.

"Every day riders come across people cutting them off, failing to give way, driving while talking on mobiles and even doing thing like eating breakfast, all while travelling at 60km/h," Mr Toscano said.

Let's go back and deconstruct the phrase "often witness them breaking the law or taking unnecessary risks":
  • Nobody, and I mean nobody, unless they are a trained observer who is paying attention and taking notes, and not even then, can accurately gauge "often". If you see twenty bikers and two of them are weaving through traffic at speed, the chances are you will say "often" about that 10%, becsause it sticks in your mind and the rest just vanish from memory. This is how stereotypes arise - the human mind likes to simplify life by picking up on nice solid warning signs like "4WD vehicle" instead of analysing all aspects of road behaviour in depth, and unfortunately this tendency gets carried over into all other aspects of life.
  • "Breaking the law" is a phrase that gets sadly overused by people who see something they don't agree with. I give this no credence without more details attached to it.
  • "Taking unnecessary risks": Such as? Unless you are a rider, or at the very least an above-average driver, such as an advanced driving instructor, I give no credence to the idea that the motorists can actually judge what this is.
Put all that together, and you come up with the conclusion that the survey, as presented in this article, is absolutely useless and says more about perceptions and prejudices than about anything useful.

As a motorcyclist, I regularly see other riders behaving in a way that I think is stupid, but they're outnumbered by riders who aren't. My perceptions are also different - I don't think that riding between lines of stationary traffic or on the verge is dangerous unless you're going too fast. In fact, it's often safer. I'm pretty sure that most experienced riders who aren't actually policemen will agree.

And then this:

""The wake-up-to-yourself campaign implied to other road users that all riders have a death wish and, as a result, should be treated with contempt," Mr Toscano said."

Which is exactly what I was saying at the time. Queensland is just about the only place in the world which has managed to product statistics showing that riders are at fault in more than half of multi-vehicle accidents, and the entire advertising campaign addressed those at-fault riders, ignoring the shared responsibility of other road users completely.

What's even sadder is that people can watch ads like that, assume that the government know what they're talking about, and leap effortlessly to the conclusion that riders are their own worst enemy, staying serenely confident of that while they forget to check their blind spot and merge sideways, forcing a bike to brake hard, swerve and get clipped by the car in the other lane.

I don't hate car drivers as a group: I just don't trust them as a group, and I recommend that everyone else has the same attitude. If you trust nobody, you'll be ready when they do something stupid, whether or not they have two wheels, four, or eighteen.

Link to Courier Mail article "Car drivers cut motorbike riders little slack - research

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