Rules of the road

28th October, 2005 with responses from kybernetikos and John

There are some things I take very seriously, and driving is one of them. If you believe that the roads can be made a better place simply by lowering speed limits then I'd like you to put your money where your mouth is by performing a little test:

  1. Find a brick or concrete (your choice) wall
  2. Stand 30 metres away from the wall
  3. Sprint towards the wall as fast as you can
  4. Do not stop or slow down until you have hit the wall
  5. Tell me that speed limits are the only requirement for road safety

If my calculations are correct you just hit that wall at around 20 miles/hour (9 metres/second). Now if you managed all the points (including 5) then I'm frankly astonished. Just to see how true you are to your beliefs I'd like you to perform one more test:

  1. Stand still
  2. Be hit by a wall going 20 miles/hour. It's hard to find a moving wall so try using a family car in place of the wall.
  3. Again. Tell me that speed limits are the only requirement for road safety.

Still, I suppose it's better than being hit at 30 miles/hour. However, I think you'd agree that it would be stupid to hit or be hit by a wall in the first place; and that's exactly my point.

Most people would agree that speed limits should not be the only method of road safety, but when we look around the world at what goverments and pressure groups do to directly affect drivers' behaviour it basically boils down to "Drive slower".

I expect and demand better. So should you, of yourself and of others.

I suggest we start at the beginning and remind ourselves of what the axioms for driving should be:

  1. Do not hit other road users (pedestrians are road users too)
  2. Do not, through your actions, cause any road user to hit any other road user

Now all we have to do is follow them.

A response from kybernetikos

28th October, 2005

I'm not sure what the 0th law should be, but we have to have one.

Anyway, I think this view is a little simplistic. We have many laws in England, but they essentially come down to just one - 1. Do no harm to your neighbour or his property. The Bible has many laws, but according to Jesus, these can be summed up in 2 - Love God completely, and Love your neighbour as much as you love yourself. The point is that these general rules describe the end result, but don't help you with the process that you need to achieve that end result. In order to enable people to keep the important rules, we generally legislate sensible processes as well. Processes like the rules of the road.

Can you, by driving safely guarantee that you will never hit another road user? No matter what you think your driving skill level is, there are always unexpected events and unforeseen hazards that can ruin your plans.

How many people have to be inconvenienced or have their freedom of movement severely limited, before you say this is a bigger tragedy than a fatality? This isn't a fair question of course, but people need to know that by driving rather than walking or taking public transport they are accepting that there is a small but real risk they may kill someone (even the good drivers). If they aren't comfortable with that risk, they shouldn't drive.

On average more than 9 people die and 90 people are seriously injured every day in road accidents. 3 of those deaths will have been because of excessive or inappropriate speed. Although most driving is motorway driving, it accounts for less than 10% of fatalities.

By far the majority of drivers think of themselves as much better than the average driver, which strongly indicates that most people have an unrealistic view of their driving skill. Studies show that people do not understand the reasons for speed limits, they are often unaware of the hazards that they speed past. My point here is that if people are told to go as fast as they think safe, almost all of them will go faster than is safe.

Anyway, it turns out that the government is trying to do a large number of things to improve safety on the roads and increasing the number of speedlimited areas is only a small part of their plan. Check out Tomorrow's roads: safer for everyone by The Department for Transport for more information. By pages, speed limits are about a fifth of their strategy (the rest being: higher testing standards, better infrastructure, education and enforcement of tiredness and drug related driving, increasing vehicle safety standards), and since excessive speed deaths are about a third of the fatalities, I wouldn't say that that is an overemphasis.

I'm not entirely sure we've got the balance right when it comes to peoples right to have cars versus environmental and safety issues, but if society has decided as it has then I think the government is doing roughly the right thing in being stricter on speed limits in the kinds of areas where most accidents occur. Since motorways are relatively safe, I think it'd be sensible to remove the speed limit on the safer stretches of motorway as they do in parts of Germany.

I can only really think of one way they could improve safety that they don't mention much in the report, and that is to encourage the police to use careless and dangerous driving charges more often. This would mean people might be charged for breaking the 2 second rule etc, but it would lead to very subjective policing. At least now, even if you think it's an ass, you know if you're breaking the law or not.

A response from John

29th October, 2005

Might I inquire what source was used to gain the proportion of fatalities due to excessive or inappropriate speed?

A response from kybernetikos

29th October, 2005

The exact figures I mentioned were from the government paper I linked to. They introduced it as "studies have shown" with no attribution, but it fits with things the BBC have reported. The only claims I have seen on the internet that contradict it are from motorist pressure groups, which have a vested interest. Your implication that the government has a vested interest isn't really something I accept without further evidence. I expect that the one third figure may not be accurate (in particular, they probably include everyone who was speeding and killed someone, but don't deduct the people who would have been killed anyway by someone travelling at the speed limit). However, it all fits pretty well with this paper from the British Medical Journal http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/reprint/330/7487/331 which indicates that all studies that met their scientific criteria have indicated a reduction in collisions after the introduction of speed cameras. It does point out that more and better studies need to be done to make certain, but I think that there is enough evidence out there to support a belief that stricter enforcement of speedlimits (particularly in 30 zones) will reduce the number of collisions with other road users.

I'm not claiming that all roads are correctly zoned with respect to limits, but I think that the evidence suggests that stricter controls on speed are one of the most effective things that the government can do. I'm actually surprised and pleased that they are also taking the other things seriously as well, such as increasing the standard needed to get a drivers license, and improving cars and roads.

I'm a bit disappointed that they seem prepared to listen to residents fears about speed, particularly given that studies show that people feel very strongly about speed around their kids school and their home, but speed themselves round other peoples schools and homes. Really, objective measures for what areas are dangerous should be used, not whether or not the locals kick up a fuss.

A response from John

29th October, 2005

It's important to note that the original post did not say (or even imply) that speed limits, used within the correct context or at the correct level, are a Bad Thing™. Nor, in fact, did it at any point hypothesize what that context or level might be.

Also, I fully agree that as laws the rules at the bottom of the post would present a simplistic view. However, they are not laws but axioms. In fact, on further thought, I would instead postulate a zeroth axiom:

  1. All road users have a duty of care to other road users

Then, I would argue that actions by a significant proportion of the population, government, and pressure groups either actively or accidently break that simple axiom every day.

As evidence for this I direct readers to a table contained in the document One Third = 7% by The Association of British Drivers. Note, I am only referring to the table, not the rest of the document.

The causes of incidents can roughly be separated in to 3 categories:

For me at least the overwhelming number of incidents listed were due to incompetence. I will finish with 2 further thoughts:

  1. Incompetence can be fixed
  2. Focusing on exacerbating factors instead of actual causes does not, in the long run, help