Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Treating drivers as simpletons is a major cause of road accidents

All of a sudden, five stories from the Queensland Times appeared in my RSS reader.

They are, in the order in which they appeared: Speed cameras do help save lives, Drivers disregard the Fatal Four, Forget the phone, you're driving, Enough is enough - Drive 2 Stay Alive and Count the cost of careless driving.

Spot the theme?

It appears that Drive 2 Stay Alive (I will withhold my comments on cutesy SMS-like usage of homonymic numbers) is a program adopted by the QT to encourage road safety, and all five of the articles list the other four in a "Related links" box right at the top.

Which is all very admirable - the intent, I mean, not the internet formatting. I really can't fault the QT for public interest journalism in this matter.

In fact, it's fantastic that the last-named of these articles points out the costs of road accidents aren't just in fatalities, and include medical treatment, disability care, clean-up bills and legal costs as well as costs to the economy in loss of labour (I've always wondered how they calculate that...)

But I would like to make a few points, because my cynicism doth runneth over.

Over the next four weeks, we will provide informative features to help you stay alive on our roads, and by taking the online pledge, you are saying enough people have died needlessly on our roads.

Umm... I will withhold my opinion of online pledges, as well, but admirable, admirable.

Let me get into the meat of criticism, now, and it's exemplified for me by this statement:

Colin Goodsell from the RACQ said distraction while behind the wheel was one of the top causes of accidents on Queensland roads aside from the fatal four – speeding, drink driving, seatbelts and fatigue.

Okay, first of all, not wearing a seatbelt is not generally a cause of accidents. It can be - you could lose control because you moved relative to the seat in a corner or while braking - but it's generally a cause of getting hurt in an accident, not a cause of the accident happening. Language like this may be approved by marketing and may present a united front, but I'm not sure it helps.

Also, if the "fatal four" is speeding, drink driving, seatbelts and fatigue, is it a "fatal three" for motorcyclists or do they have a different set?

And then there is the argument that distraction is the biggest cause because if you were truly paying attention then, either you wouldn't be speeding or it wouldn't be as a big a problem, you wouldn't be drink driving and you would be managing your fatigue.

All of these road safety campaigns, possibly in an attempt to get the message across, over-simplify matters so badly that you're left with the impression of a collection of tick-a-box, exclusive and non-related options. I have been complaining for years that some of the most dangerous drivers I meet on the roads are the ones who aren't speeding, and I've been much more comfortable in cars where the driver was speeding but competent than in some cars where the driver just wasn't paying attention to much except the speedometer, the road signs and the conversation.

I am convinced that ignoring the interaction between all cognitive factors and driving decisions is just going to lead to trouble.

It's also a major factor in my complaint against the anti-speeding arguments and the anti-speeding initiatives and the crowing of authorities when a rise in speed cameras is correlated (say it with me: "Correlation does not equal causation") with a reduction in road fatalities.

If they don't, in public, consider the possibility that the reduction is not because people have decided to not speed but because they are keeping a much sharper eye out for cameras and camera vans and are therefore more likely to spot and respond to other dangerous situations, then I just aren't going to take them seriously.

In fact, the "Speed cameras do save lives" article is a classic of waffling, unsubstantiated claims that would get laughed out of any research proposal. "Police have linked...", "increase in speeding detection... has been credited..." Oh, puh-lease.

And then there's the almost throwaway line "... more people driving to the speed limit and road conditions."

Just try and convince me that the two are necessarily (to use the word in its nice and exact meaning) related. Go ahead, just try. Most articles run like that: "Speeding.... speed limit... too fast... dangerous.... road conditions." Slipped in almost as an afterthought, the one most important factor - road conditions. Driving to the speed limit at all times is just a recipe for disaster the next time there's a decent storm.

What I would like to see, in all of this pleading, public displays of hurt bewilderment and patriarchal trumpeting from the various authorities, is this exhortation: Take responsibility for your own driving, and look out for everyone else.

That's it. Drop all this talk of specifics, mention it when it's relevant to individual situations, but just keep reminding people that, actually, they have a "licence" to drive, not a "right", and they are in command of several tonnes of metal travelling at speeds never before attained by human beings and in excess of what our physiology and neurology evolved to cope with.

Start treating drivers like complicated, thinking, sentient human beings and, just perhaps, they'll start behaving like it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But speeding cameras DO save lives! Why, every week at QT you can hear the cries of "Oh thank GOD, the revenues from the speeding cameras have come in, we don't have to grovel for more budget allocations . . . those things really are a lifesaver . . . "

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