John Adams, professor of Geography at UCL and author of “Risk and Freedom ” gave a talk at a very packed members meeting on Monday 16th June.
John started by referring to the fact that the CCC website has a summary of a debate on risk compensation and helmet wearing between John Adams and Mayer Hillman on one side and the two Thompsons and Rivara on the other side (taken from “Injury Prevention”, June 2001).
A crash test dummy is an excellent example of an obedient automaton. John illustrated the idea of behaviour modification with reference to acrobats and the presence or absence of safety nets. The risk compensation hypothesis states that people modify their behaviour according to changes in their environment.
A child learning to walk is an excellent example of risk management – it illustrates a balancing act where the pleasure of getting it right is contrasted with the pain of being wrong. It is instinctive, intuitive, it consults experience and is modified by culture.
John asked why some nations have higher road death rates than others. He then went on to show us a diagram that was central to most of his presentation.
We all have some propensity to take risks (our risk thermostat) and the resulting risk taking behaviour results in accidents. These accidents feed into our perception of risks and then to our balancing behaviour. But the latter can also give rewards again affecting our propensity to take risks.
After the death of the racing driver Ayrton Senna racing cars were modified (to make brakes less efficient and tyres have less grip) so that drivers would go more slowly – and crashes would be less dangerous.
Some studies of fatalities in different months in Ontario showed that the fewest fatalities occurred in February when road conditions were icy and the most when the weather was clear and dry. A Swedish study showed that there were very low death figures just after driving was changed from the left to the right of the road, which was expected to be very dangerous – but drivers over-compensated for the change.
Studies of the number of deaths after the repeal of motorcycle helmet laws in some states in the US showed an increase, but when the figures were separated to show those states that did/didn’t repeal the laws, the states that retained helmets had a greater increase.
An interesting study by Bike Magazine had riders in a variety of different states of dress – from full leathers, normal clothes to just underwear. Those with less clothes on drove more slowly.
Photo by Lionel Shapiro
Returning to the ” balancing behaviour ” diagram, John said that we society encourages people to have a ” bottom loop bias”. For example, in crossing the road, we are told of danger and to think hard. John referred to the swings in the playground outside where the swings were taken down at night to stop anyone coming in and hurting themselves. This illustrates the general ” Health and Safety ” attitude of reducing risks in order to protect people. Defensive medicine is done in the interests of doctors. Similarly, defensive highway engineering results in railings, footbridges and even underpasses in town centres. John’s amusing video clip showed pedestrians climbing the railings, avoiding the underpasses and even successfully crossing a busy two by two lane road without collisions.
But John also showed us views of Seven Dials where pedestrians, cycles and vehicles were successfully intermingling, referring to the ideas of Hans Monderman from the Netherlands who promotes the idea of naked streets in which people negotiate by means of eye contact instead of obeying signs. John stated that at Seven Dials there had been only one minor pedestrian accident in five years.
He went on to discuss the radical improvements made in Kensington High Street under the guidance of Daniel Moylan. These changes were originally resisted by council officers, but were eventually accepted and implemented. John then pointed out that pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles are mingling safely with less regulations than usual and that cycle lanes are not necessary in suitable conditions. Since the upgrades, accidents have decreased at 10 out of 11 sites studied.
John referrred to the book One False Move, that he and Mayer Hillman had written on children’s independent mobility (in 1990). This showed that in 1970, 80% children went to school on their own, but only 9% in 1990. This resulted from a fear of traffic and of stranger-danger. In 1922 the number of children killed on the road was more than 3 times the number in 1990. Figures have subsequently decreased because children are not allowed out.
John mentioned the issue of segregated versus shared cycle ways, comparing the Bloomsbury (SSL) cycle route with an area in Melbourne with shared use involving pedestrians, skateborders and cyclists, which is not seen to be controversial.
John showed us figures to support the idea of ” safety in numbers ” for cyclists – countries with large numbers of cyclists have a lower per km cycled accident rate. He then returned to the ” balancing behaviour ” diagram and talked of interactions between road users, in particular between cyclists and lorry drivers. The other user affects our behaviour and we affect theirs. But unfortunately lawyers and insurers get involved and the fear of litigation is stifling – risks that we might have been willing to take in the past may not be so acceptable in the future.
Risk assessors apparently use fault trees and event trees. But a real life event tree is much more complicated – people decide on the risks worth taking and when things go wrong they think it is bad luck. Unfortunately, the shift towards litigation leads us to fear it might be ” culpable negligence “.
John told us of an interesting article in New Scientist (Jan 2005) that describes a study in Israel which shows that in an area populated with religious types, who rely on god to protect them, rather than stop, look and listen, when crossing the road. There were fewer accidents than elsewhere. Drivers are wary. John introduced a variant of risk compensation called ” risk homoeostasis ” where it is claimed that as so-called safety features are installed in vehicles and roads, drivers feel better protected and tend to be at greater risk. The proponent Wilde suggests it should affect strategies for road safety whereas the critics claim it is an excuse for doing nothing.
Finally, John reverted to the subject of the helmet debate between him and Mayer and Thompson, Thompson and Rivara. His article Public safety legislation and the risk compensation hypothesis: the example of motorcycle helmet legislation was submitted to the American Journal of Public Heath in 1981. The journal editor demanded that he drop the references to risk compensation.
The talk was very well received and was followed by many questions, quite a few of them on the issue of segregated cycle lanes. We were interested in John’s telling us that Bloomsbury is to become a Business Improvement District and that it is his ambition to civilise it to a level where segregation will no longer be needed. When we said goodbye to John, Stefano Casalotti and Jean Dollimore said that CCC would like to be involved in any such improvements.