Monday 29 June 2009

Road ‘accidents’ 2008

I was interested by the presentation and very varied interpretation of Friday’s official government 2008 casualty statistics for what are commonly described as ‘road accidents’.

Firstly, designating road crashes as ‘accidents’ immediately begins the process of muffling understanding of them. The vast majority of road crashes are not unpredictable accidents but arise from the deliberate and criminally negligent operation of dangerous machinery. Almost all police forces and media collude with road violence by designating it accidental. The judicial system then perpetuates that false designation.

Secondly, fatality and injury statistics do not represent the total number of crashes on Britain’s roads. Most crashes do not result in injury or death. To grasp the incredible scale of crashes on Britain’s roads you need to look at insurance claims arising from crashes. For example, this crash, which resulted in no personal injury to the driver but which would likely have killed a cyclist who was passing at the time, occurred on the very day the new statistics were released, and supplies a classic example.

Thirdly, fatalities and injuries cannot simply be equated with danger or its absence. A road can be dangerous, with the result that few cyclists choose to use it. The absence of any record of collisions resulting in injury or death does not mean that a road is safe. But highway engineers choose to use ‘road accident’ statistics as proof of safety.

Just look at the presentation. Violence on the roads is the greatest form of violence in Britain but you would never know it from the media. The reality is that 78 people die or are seriously injured on our roads each day.

The well-funded road lobby dominated interpretation of the 2008 statistics. As far as the RAC is concerned everything on Britain’s roads is wonderful, as is proven by the fact that deaths on the roads are the lowest figure since 1926 when records began.

Ironically, this chirpy optimism is matched by the Cyclists Touring Club:

“Official statistics prove that cycling is on the rise in Britain, yet casualties don’t appear to be rising at the same rate,” said CTC policy coordinator Chris Peck. “This bears out CTC’s Safety in Numbers campaign which shows increased levels of cycling and safety go hand in hand.”

The Scotsman lapped up the road lobby propaganda:

DRIVERS are at higher risk of crashing on Scotland's main roads than those in England and Wales, according to a government-based survey. The Road Safety Foundation said 17 per cent of A roads in Scotland were in the two highest-risk categories, compared with 12 per cent south of the Border.

The Road Safety Foundation?

Joanne Hill, managing executive of Road Safety Foundation, said: "Scotland certainly has more roads in the medium-to-high risk category than the UK as a whole but, because they carry smaller volumes of traffic, it is harder to make the economic case for investing in them.We would certainly want to see greater investment put into the non-primary A roads which our research shows present the highest level of risk, accounting for 62% of all road deaths."

That’s because the ‘Road Safety Foundation’ is a road lobby front. It is not interested in reducing road danger but in seeing millions more spent on building new roads or ‘improving’ existing ones.

The contradictions of interpretation are revealed by these three stories:

You want good news?

THE death toll on Scotland's roads is at its lowest for nearly 60 years, new figures have revealed.

Now here are the same figures, spun to shock:

THE number of children killed on Scotland's roads more than doubled to 20 last year.

But let’s do even better:

THE number of children killed in cars on Scotland's roads trebled last year to its highest level for 21 years, Scottish Government figures show.

The increase from four to 13 since 2007 comes despite stricter laws on child car seats – which surveys suggest are incorrectly fitted in up to two-thirds of cases.

That last comment is classic bad science, because it suggests a connection between an increase in children killed as car passengers and child car seat fitting. But no connection whatsoever has been established between the 2008 figures, child car seats and child passenger deaths. The linkage is every bit as spurious as those stories which tell us that a cyclist who has gone under the wheels of a heavy goods vehicle ‘was not wearing a helmet’.

The BBC, not content with giving a plug to EuroRAP, also included another plug for a road lobby front organisation:

The Campaign for Safe Road Design claims 10,000 deaths or serious injuries could be prevented over 10 years by using better signs, lines and kerbs.

The road lobby had a field day. Its bogus Greenwash fronts - The Campaign for Safe Road Design, The Road Safety Foundation, and EuroRAP - were widely cited, as if they were somehow official and objective organisations, rather than lobbying outfits with slick PR teams.

And the Green movement? Nowhere to be seen.

In fact if you wanted to get a report which revealed some of the realities qualifying the supposedly good news, you’d have to turn to the Daily Telegraph:

This dramatic drop coincided with a one per cent fall in traffic as a whole, while the number of cars on the road dropped by three per cent during a year when petrol prices peaked at 119.7 pence on July, while diesel hit 133.3 pence. Although prices rose into July, the cost of motoring fell in the second half of the year - and the number of deaths rose to 661 during the third quarter and increased again to 693 between September and the end of the year. Speed cameras, better in-car protection and tougher enforcement of the ban on mobile use by drivers have all been cited as being partially-responsible for the improved figures.

Not only were there three per cent less cars on the roads in 2008 and an overall drop of one per cent in traffic as a whole but

the distance travelled by motor vehicles in 2008 fell around 0.8 per cent compared with 2007 – the first fall since 1979.

In other words, there was less danger around, as the number of drivers on the roads dropped, and the distance travelled by vehicles also fell. Then, as petrol became cheaper again, there was a surge in road deaths.

BikeBiz, which supplies the optimistic CTC response cited above, also gets one statistic glaringly wrong. Cycling injuries did not drop last year, they increased:

The number of [cyclists] seriously injured rose by 1 per cent to 2,450. The total casualties among pedal cyclists rose by 1 per cent to 16,297.

So the CTC, which cherrypicks the reduced fatalities statistic, is clutching at straws in thinking that more cyclists on the roads makes the roads safer for them.

My guess is that the figures for 2009 will show a surge in both pedestrian and cycling fatalities and injuries compared to 2008. I base this on my subjective impression that good weather brings out cyclists and walkers, and 2009 is turning out to be a much sunnier year than last year, which had a poor, cloudy, wet summer. If I am right in my prediction this will prove nothing, except that Britain's roads continue to be very dangerous places, and that these statistics register instances of exposure to risk, not 'safety'.

And now here’s a 28 seconds-long clip of what it’s like to cycle on a London road which is 2.8 times safer than it was in 2000, in a country with the safest roads in the world!

More bike vid news here.