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Vision Zero – all for naught?

Just yesterday I was pointed at an online version of a magazine, to wit the Vision Zero 2009 Annual.

I thought the term ‘annual’ was reserved for the Beano and such, but hey ho, such is life.

Anyway, I was specifically directed to look at the section entitled ‘Biker Road’. Should you wish to read it, you’ll find it here but be warned, it’s a flash document that takes a while to load, and the specific article is on page 66.

The article starts by going over the old ground that is the “1% of vehicles, 20% of fatalities” statistic.

They then point up the equally well known fact that the majority of motorcycle accidents involve a so-called ‘Right of Way Violation’ (ROWV)where the car turns across the bike’s path, either because the driver failed to detect the presence of the bike or saw the bike and misjudged speed/distance, and just went ahead with the manoeuvre in any case.

Depending on which study you look at, these accidents account for between 2/3 and 3/4 of all motorcycle accidents. That of course means that the rider is fully responsible for 1/4 to 1/3 of accidents!

At this point, they dropped an interesting hint about the speed/misjudgement issue:

“This is related to… certain disadvantageous characteristics of motorcycle lighting systems”.

I sat up all expectantly. I’ve been arguing for some considerable time now that dipped lights on bikes are just about the worst of all possible compromises for Day Riding Lights (DRLs).

This is because the primary function of a dipped beam is NOT to shine light at eye level – they are deliberately focussed at the ground so as a DRL they offer little real help! Some riders have of course noticed this and ride on main beam! But in an attempt to give a usable range to a dip beam, the cut off is often lifted assymetrically to the nearside of the bike. Add in the characteristic fore and aft pitching of a motorcycle over bumps and you have the ingredients for a ‘flash’ of the lights by an approaching bike. And in the UK at least, a flash means “after you”. The evidence for such accidents is anecdotal at best, but there’s no clear evidence the DRLs do reduce collisions either, yet we now have them hard-wired regardless.

Unfortunately, the paper throws no further light (sic) on the issue, and moves swiftly onto the Motorcycle Accident In-Depth Study (MAIDS) that looked at 1999 data on bike accidents from five countries in Europe.

MAIDS reinforces the detection failure/decision failure split in ROWV collisions, with a ratio of about 7/10 for the detection failure and 2/10 for the decision failure. I wonder what the other 1/10 was.

Anyway, the article then looked at two possible approaches to making riding safer.

The first they chose to highlight was a Norwegian project to re-engineer the ‘roadscape’.

Whoever coined that word should be made to sit on a traffic cone in hell for eternity, but in short, the Norwegian authorities believed they had a particular problem with one stretch of road; a nine mile stretch of the RV32 near Oslo.

They started re-engineering the road based on suggestions by riders themselves. They moved lighting and ‘siding posts’ (whatever they are!) to the inside of curves, and shifted a lot of rocks from the outside so there was less to hit if the rider ran off the road. Where guardrails were installed, ‘underrun’ bars were fitted to stop riders hitting the posts that support the rail (something the Spanish have been pressing the rest of the EU to do for a decade, incidentally!) They also improved the sightlines by removing obstructions to vision on the inside of the curve.

As one of the engineers explained: “we weren’t able to solve all the problems of this stretch, but through a combination of crash barriers fitted with subrails, strategically placed signposts, and more forgiving terrain running along the side of the road, we definitely made a difference.”

The road was opened by the president of the Federation of European Motorcyclists’ Associations in May 2008, and referred to as a milestone in motorcycle safety. And it cost “under $1million”.

Back to our engineer: “Before we reworked this stretch of road, we had around one fatality a year. This season we haven’t had any. We look forward to seeing what will happen in the future, but I’m sure we won’t have any serious motorcycle accidents. ‘Vision Zero is a realistic goal for motorcyclists.”

Hang on. “Around one fatality a year”. “None this season”. Hardly conclusive statistical evidence, is it?

And one million dollars for under ten miles of road? We have (according to the Ordnance Survey in 2006) just on a quarter of a million miles of road in the UK. Do the sums. Even if you targeted just the most dangerous biking roads in the UK, it’s still a significant investment.

It’s not going to happen, is it? You simply can’t go around removing trees and hedgerows or re-siting millions of road signs and telegraph poles in a busy country like the UK in the same way you can re-engineer a short stretch of ‘near-wilderness’.

(As a by-the-by, that doesn’t mean the councils shouldn’t avoid putting NEW hazards in place. The M20 junction improvements around Maidstone featured decreasing radius slip roads which claimed a police rider on the very first day they were opened, Kent continues to put up new signs and paint road markings in motorcycle-unfriendly locations, and the county has recently replaced many signs that used to stand quite happily on single poles with DOUBLE ones – presumably to stop them blowing over in strong winds or something. But they represent a significantly larger hazard to riders because they are now effectively half a metre wide instead of five centimetres.)

Final comment on that new bit of road back in Norway. Now, I don’t know about you but what does a nicely surfaced road, with excellent sight lines and plenty of run-off sound like?

A bit like a race track perhaps?

Can you imagine how you would react on a bike if you such a bit of tarmac? I’d go faster. So any crash I DID have would probably have a more serious impact on me in any case. Nor do I think it takes much imagination to see that such a road could well attract MORE riders who actually take MORE risk than average – think of the reputation of Snake Pass.

I think we need to see such work done in a busy country on a busy road before we can pass meaningful judgment on the success or failure of such as scheme.

The second safety highlight was on the Honda motorcycle-to-car communication system. Basically the system works by locating your vehicle via GPS, transmitting that via an uplink to the satellite, then downloading corresponding data given out by other vehicles to log their proximity in the neighbourhood. You then get a warning that you’re on a potential collision course.

We’ll leaving aside the issues of a system that tracks your vehicle 24/7 and the possible uses an anal retentive government to put it to!

It seems to me that discussions about whether this technology requires a heads-up display in the helmet, warning lights on the dash near the line of sight, or audible alerts all miss the fundamental point that we’re removing another level of personal responsibility for avoiding collisions and delegating it to a mechanical system.

It’s another of those seemingly sensible ideas that ‘reduce the workload’ for the driver (workload being something I’ve talked about before), but in fact the aid is more likely to be used as a crutch by the car driver (“I’m safe to fiddle with the radio/chat on the phone/programme the GPS because the system will warn me if I need to look“) rather than an aid (“oops, I didn’t see that bike even though I looked carefully“).

Worse, it’ll reinforce the idea that the motorcyclist has no responsibility to avoid a collision at an intersection (“the system will warn the car driver I’m around and he’ll stop “).

No doubt like conspicuity aids stop car drivers pulling out in front of bikes, or so we’re led to believe.

Unless the system actually takes control of the car and actively prevents the driver from moving, we’ll still have:

collisions resulting from incidents where the driver simply doesn’t register the device squawking or flashing (how many of us have missed a spoken direction by a GPS because we’re concentrating on something else – just about every one of us who’s used one, I would suggest!).

collisions where the driver overrides the advice given and decides he can pull out regardless.

Both scenarios thus create the very situation that the rider is relying on the technology to prevent.

And what of the impact on the rider when the car does emerge? Will the rider be relying on the technology to stop the car and so drive unthinkingly (and without slowing!) into the accident? In fact, very much along the lines of the rider who complains:

“but I was using my lights and wearing my dayglo vest and he STILL pulled out.”

And no matter how clever the system is, it WILL malfunction. My GPS regularly shows positional errors of tens of metres – that’s enough to turn an innocuous pass at a junction into a false alarm warning of a potential collision. Or vice versa.

We can press for more accurate satellites and receivers but all we do is increase our reliance on the system. Look how highly trained commercial jet pilots make mistakes because they rely on the ‘systems’. Call me a Luddite if you wish, but the fewer such ‘aids’ we have, the better, in my opinion.

Karen Cooke, director of safety for the Motorcycle Industry (MCI) in the UK seems to share my doubts:

“…we are all human beings and we all make mistakes. I don’t believe Vision Zero is a possibility for motorcyclists. I think we would all like to get as close to that as we could but I think the law of luck tells you it isn’t going to happen. I actually believe that whereever a human being interacts with a machine, the chances of no-one ever getting hurt are about zero.”

I agree but arguably it’s not so much about human interacting with machine as human interacting with another human. THAT’S when mistakes are made.

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