Transport CommitteeWritten evidence from TND Anderson

1. Introduction

1.1 National road codes are distinguished by the many strictures they attempt to place on motor vehicles and drivers. The heavy hand of the law demands compliance, and non-compliance invites unnecessary risk and fatal consequences.

1.2 Despite all the efforts directed at making roads safer, many people are killed (notably pedestrians and cyclists), many more are injured, many traffic tickets are issued and many face punitive sanctions. Blunt warnings are issued annually, but even a moment’s carelessness may undermine all the good intentions. Year after year, present efforts are making only marginal albeit welcome improvements.

1.3 The millions of motorists who annually commit speeding, parking and other traffic offences appear largely undeterred by points on licences and fines. A sense of injustice prevails—the parking warden was quite unreasonable, it was only few minutes, I was only accelerating up the hill, the speed camera was hidden, she wasn’t looking when she stepped into the road—though this does not often prevent their condemnation of other motorists for their carelessness, indifference or honest error!

1.4 One might easily say…

…first cast out the beam out of thine own eye… (Matthew 7: 5)

The impression one gains while driving in urban areas is the frustration and impatience of many (other!) drivers on the highway. Pedestrian crossings, cyclists, double-yellow lines, traffic lights and speed cameras have all obviously been designed to thwart their smooth passage at the maximum permissible speed through life.

1.5 Those apparent winners in the meritocratic stakes—the drivers of larger, more expensive vehicles—drive to claim a higher entitlement. Requiring more space and exercising more horsepower, they often exert an arrogance on the highway that other drivers find it easy to resent… We may or may not feel their pain, but at least they have the comforts of their vehicles and the status they supposedly confer to compensate them when caught in traffic along with the rest of us.

1.6 Above, I’ve drawn a picture of motorists which may be decried as a wholly unfair parody, especially of the less humble among us. But while exaggerated, it may nevertheless represent the negative side of possibly all of us.

2.0 A Possible Counter-Strategy

2.1 All motorists are at least unconsciously aware of how cooperation promotes efficient road-use. HGV drivers and London taxis are famous for it—being aware, giving way when sensible etc.

The strategy I propose is designed to build on the potential for organised cooperation among highway users.

2.2 This strategy has the acronym of SEC. Not just aimed at road safety, but at your travel management. SEC would represent a more attractive message from highways managers to highway users, something that is positive, and clearly in the vehicle-user’s interest to take notice of.

While I describe it as an alternative, it could easily be seen as complementing present efforts.

2.3 Culturally speaking, the SEC strategy may appear as permissive, therefore anathema to those with an authoritarian mindset, and likely to provoke resistance.

However, this caricature would be a mistake, as SEC would obligate a higher standard of responsibility—more communication among fellow road-users, a greater awareness of the driving environment and a shared willingness to optimise outcomes.

2.4 SEC would re-position the highway authorities (DfT, Police etc) as allies of the vehicle-user, acting in their interest, inviting compliance from self-interest rather than demanding it, and placing less emphasis on the apparat of the law.

In a new spirit of partnership, consideration should be given reviewing the punishment meted out for minor misdemeanours—thresholds could be raised, for example.

In the case of the proposal to raise the speed limit to 80mi/h (which I oppose on energy, safety and efficacy grounds), the discretion of the police not to prosecute should simply be widened. The criterion ought to be the safety of all road-users in the particular circumstance.

3. The SEC Strategy

3.1 The objectives of the SEC strategy are three-fold:

safety (helping highway-users to survive);

economy (helping highway-users save money by using their vehicles and other modes efficiently); and

courtesy (helping other highway-users to help you)

Further work is required on this strategy. But before long though, highway users may be calling for more SEC!

3.2 The top priority is the preservation of life—safety. Better standards of driving, incentives for advanced training, greater traffic awareness and respect for other road-users rights would all assist in promoting safety.

The standard of safety I propose is unequivocal—from where we are now, we prioritise safety absolutely.

3.3 The worst aspect of the 80mi/h speed limit proposal is that its proponents appear willing to trade-off lives for speed—not good PR. We know that higher speeds will lead to more road fatalities, and to more serious collisions and concomitant injury.

While claims have been made about the greater safety of modern cars—undoubtedly true and a definite mitigating factor—the drivers remain just as good, bad or indifferent.

The case is not strong enough to justify a change, except perhaps in the manner I propose in paragraph 2.4.

3.4 I especially urge a more constructive and realistic approach to cycle safety, and a halt to the illiberal and authoritarian approach to what is the most efficient method of transportation yet devised. An absolute right-of-way for pedestrians in shared space would reassure them.

Highway-users, especially private motor vehicle drivers, need to become more aware and tolerant of soft modes and their users.

3.5 It is profoundly unfortunate in many respects that governments have declined to outlaw high-fuel economy vehicles.

High fuel consumption vehicles require two or three times more fuel to transport their passengers than more economical ones. Where is the benefit?

3.6 One might wonder whether governments prefer then larger tax take on larger vehicles to clean air and excess consumption of non-renewable resources? Certainly, the equivocal nature of current policy is plain to see—so-called freedom for a small number of consumers and higher revenues on one hand, and diminished safety, efficiency and sustainability on the other.

3.7 While motoring costs are increasing and will continue to do so, the marginal cost of driving is very low compared to rail (or even bus) fares. The pursuit of speed is supposedly aimed at reducing travel time, but Marchetti’s Constant shows us merely that travel distance will increase.

Far better to help people become productive while travelling—conference coaches, wifi on trains—rather than to encourage them to be in cars when effectively they can do little except expose themselves to stress and risk.

3.8 Rather than use one’s car for everything as many do now, adopting trip-specific modal choice would optimise transportation efficiency at minimum cost for both individuals and the economy.

Trip-specific modal choices would utilise modes for their optimum uses—cars for long-distance high-load factor journeys (eg a family holiday in Scotland); bicycles, buses and car-sharing for short-distance commuting, ICT for home-based employment, walking to the shop for bread etc.

Such a strategy is likely to reduce both overall transportation costs and its environmental impacts.

3.9 The SEC Strategy is also unequivocal in its objective of economy.

SEC posits a regime whereby:

motorists are taught fuel-saving and other techniques to improve safety;and

economy (as in the excellent Freight Best Practice programme, now unfortunately abandoned);

trip-specific modal choice is encouraged;

fleet cars are fitted with speed governors;

… and a suite of similar measures are developed to facilitate this objective.

3.10 It is noteworthy that Top Gear plays to the vanity of drivers (as well as the thrill of speed and risk). Similar programmes on how to become a good driver building on this trait could be devised.

I have suffered the wrath of other drivers on occasion (glares, mouthing swearwords etc), and know that my standard of driving could improve!

3.11 Many car-drivers fail to appreciate how privileged they are—in global terms a very small number, and in the traffic stream, usually able to reach their destinations sooner than most other travellers.

Far from encouraging beneficent, grateful and graceful driver behaviour, this privilege is strenuously contested and advanced. Every discreet opportunity to exceed speed limits is taken, to ignore parking restrictions (residents parking, disabled spaces), to contest the right of way to others with at least some claim to it, and to deny courtesy when there is a choice.

3.12 The irritability and impatience, a low-level version of road-rage, is visible on our highways every day, and appears to come easily to many drivers. Possibly a minority, possibly all of us in extremis, but sufficient to disturb the equilibrium and concentration of others, and the flow of traffic.

It is true that traffic congestion has become a frequent occurrence in urban centres. This is inevitable given our reliance on highly inefficient mode rather than bicycles and trams. Traffic then is already stressful. Selfish and inconsiderate driving readily compounds that stress.

3.13 Having experienced faux-courtesy quite often enough in Britain, one might be tempted to believe that genuine courtesy is a rare commodity here. My proposals are however designed to encourage it, primarily by facilitating and formalising communications between drivers.

The remainder of this section will no doubt be lampooned in Private Eye, should my suggestions ever see the light of day!

3.14 I’m certain that all of us have experienced genuine courtesy from other drivers on many occasions, and of course, we will all have reciprocated in kind.

The signals they send us take the form of thumbs-ups, waves, smiles, flashing lights and the like. Good and courteous drivers will often have experienced these responses from others.

Already some have become the lingua franca of the more sophisticated road-users. I merely propose that some of these signalised be systematised and officially adopted, as follows:

Signal

Interpretation

Applications

Current use

Flashing headlights/main beam

I am giving way to you

Pulling in front; conceding a right of way in a one-way section

Frequent by HGV drivers

Full hand above steering wheel

Thank you

Acknowledging the assistance of another road-user

Often seen

Flashing hazard lights two to three times

Thank you to following traffic

When pulling in front

Common among motorway drivers

One finger above steering wheel

I acknowledge your signal

Common response

Thumbs-up

Good piece of driving! (not ironic)

Congratulating another road-user for their prescience etc

Rare as yet

Two fingers and other rude gestures*

Ignorant fool! Who gave you a licence?

Selfish driving in others

Too common

* these are offensive, may be provocative, and should not be officially encouraged

3.15 The officially-sanctioned signals should:

reflect current practice;

be small in number;

be unambiguous;

be clearly differentiable from each other; and

be taught to new drivers and promulgated through the Highway Code.

Perhaps they will come to indicate a new class of courteous drivers.

3.16 Altruism is not easy to encourage and practice in the constricted and competitive space of the highway. Nevertheless, the benefits could be significant.

In the 1950s and 60s in New Zealand (my home country), Lions Clubs International sponsored distinctive “courtesy is contagious” stickers for drivers to place in their rear windows. This was a highly successful campaign—for the Lions as well.

New Zealand’s highways are noted for the courtesy of drivers, though just as possibly a function of much less traffic. However, the courtesy campaign may well have helped shape the driving habits of two generations.

4. Conclusions

4.1 This paper may appear as slightly whimsical in the context of the hard-nosed environment of the highways in Britain.

It is however an attempt to explore a different perspective in the face of the perplexing challenge we have to improve road safety and to reduce road fatalities and injuries.

4.2 The author would be prepared to discuss the paper if requested.

APPENDIX 1

BRIEF BIOGRAPHY

Neil Anderson is a transportation consultant, currently employed as Associate Director and Head of Capital Transportation Planning at Capital Traffic Management Limited (www.capitaltraffic.co.uk).

Extensively experienced internationally, Mr Anderson has been a university researcher and lecturer, and is a former elected member of two regional authorities in New Zealand. He holds degrees in economics, philosophy and transportation planning. He lives with his son in Cardiff, Wales.

October 2011

Prepared 18th July 2012