Are we doing enough road safety research?

Let’s talk about research. No, not the white coats in labs with vials and bailing liquids type of research. Not medical research or the type where animals are stuck in cages with tubes coming out of their noses. We’re talking research on humans. Humans who die in accidents and stuff.

Every year we hear the “figures” coming out. Whether it’s a minister of this or traffic chief of that, the Road Accident Fund, government’s Arrive Alive Campaign or the anti-drunk-driving lobbyists, figures are quoted with reckless abandon at around Christmas, New Year and Easter. We often hear figures quoted that sound very onerous, but the rhetoric changes as often as we change our cell phones these days. Here are some gems you might remember personally:

  • “Top causes of accidents on the N4 toll are negligent driving, burst tyres, speeding, losing control of vehicles and falling asleep / losing concentration,” according to a TRAC N4 post from 2013 (it seems).
  • “Distracted driving ‘a leading cause of crashes’ in SA,” reported Wheels24, May 2016.
  • “The majority of accidents were the result of human error, with jaywalking and speeding and drunk driving being among the main reasons but transport minister Dipuo Peters said that most accidents were caused by men,” according to The Daily Vox, December 2016.
  • “Recent statistics show that the top three causes of accidents on South African roads are distracted drivers, speed and driving while under the influence of alcohol.” – Lowfeld Online, April 2017.
  • “Human factors main cause of SA road crashes,” according to transport minister Joe Maswanganyi, as reported by ENCA on 7 May 2017.
  • “The big five reasons are distraction, drinking, speeding, reckless / negligent driving and pedestrians,” according to Women on Wheels, September 2017.
  • On 23 January 2018 the Motorcycle Safety Institute listed “Right of way violations (drivers who look but fail to see), loss of control on a bend, corner or curve on a rural road and errors in judgement at low speed” as being “the most common causes of motorcycle crashes.”

The list goes on, and these “figures” are normally followed by numerous threats and promises of “zero tolerance” and “intense law enforcement activities”. Despite the many operations and efforts, we consistently see an increase in the death toll. If the death toll rises, road users are blamed and if they come down – as they did this year – it’s because of the efforts of our fines officers in uniform.

But how accurate are these “figures” and how reliable are the correlations? Now we’re not just talking about whether the number of fatalities is reported correctly, either. That’s another issue for another article on statistics alone. We are talking about the reckless brandishing of causality.

Take the 2017/18 festive season statistics. According to the “figures released by the minister”, we learned that there was a decrease from 1 714 fatalities in the same period last year to 1 527 this year. That’s an 11% drop. The 2017/18 festive season had a longer period though, ending on 15 January. Wen factoring in the extra week, the figure is 1 676 deaths this festive season, down from 1 875 for the same period last year, as reported by News24 on 22 January 2018.

But what caused the decline? A document sited in the same News24 article, seemingly released by the Department of Transport read: “As a result of these efforts and a well executed [sic] festive season plan we recorded noticeable declines in our number of fatalities in seven (7) provinces which recorded 7% and 11% increases respectively.” It went on to say: “The highest number of fatalities was among pedestrians which increased, while fatalities among drivers also increased from 23% to 27%.” But at no stage was there a study correlating the location where pedestrians were killed. What if “illegally walking on national roads” became a factor. Also keep in mind that – in every fatal collision case and every state vehicle collision, whether there is fault on the side of the driver, or not – a case of reckless and/or negligent driving is registered as a primary or alternative charge. This bloats prevalence.

And how do you measure the success or failure of a road safety (fatality figure) effort if you only include a single metric in the analysis (fatalities)? For other road safety statistics, when comparing one country to another, we use units like “death per population” in an effort to normalise for differences. We “rate” South Africa (SA) against countries like the US, Canada, France, Germany and Australia and decide that we are “not as safe” as those countries. But what does this actually mean, to you and me? When you get into your car on the way to work in the morning, knowing that there are 151 crashes per million km travelled in SA versus 12 per million in America (random figures used for illustration only) – what decisions would you make? What would you do differently? Would it help you to know?

Frankly, there is a huge shortage of proper research into road traffic safety. The research we typically see is statistical, not analytical. It helps us ”rate” ourselves against others, other years or other periods, but it has little effect on behaviour. And that – surely – is what the goal of research should be. You should be able to read an article about road safety and learn something that affects how you operate your vehicle, how to plan your trip, what to watch out for, etc.

Before you can plan any research project, you need to understand all the metrics and you need to start on a “clean slate”. You need to be free of pre-existing assumptions, biases and beliefs. You cannot even start your research or hope for it to offer any value until you have purged yourself of expectation. If you are influenced by beliefs, such as “speed kills” and “alcohol is a factor in the greatest number of accidents” because “everyone knows it,” you need to excuse yourself and find another area of interest.

You see, anyone schooled in marketing (or politics, for that matter) will know the following golden rule of repetition: If you say something loud enough and enough times, it will eventually be perceived as a fact. Therefore, advertisers run their ads repeatedly on many channels on television, in print and on the radio. They want you to believe their product is, offers or does what is claimed. And, if you hear it often enough you will start believing it. Period. But how reliable is “conventional wisdom” when it comes to what we know about road traffic safety? How reliable is the dogma we are all exposed to daily?

Here is a great example: Take speed. We all “know” that “speed kills,” so it follows naturally that a REDUCTION in speed would result in a REDUCTION in crash numbers, right? Or would it? Research was conducted by the US Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration in an effort to determine the “the effects of raising and lowering posted speed limits on driver behaviour and accidents for non-limited access rural and urban highways”. Interestingly, the primary conclusion of this research is that the majority of motorists on the nonlimited access rural and urban highways examined in this study did not decrease or increase their speed as a result of either lowering or raising the posted speed limit by 4, 10, or 15 mi/h (8, 16, or 24 km/h). In other words, this nationwide study confirms the results of numerous other observational studies which found that the majority or motorist do not alter their speed to conform to speed limits they perceive as unreasonable for prevailing conditions. Furthermore, the data clearly show that lowering posted speed limits did not reduce vehicle speeds or accidents.

Speeding kills, or so we’re told. It would seem the reality, however, is much less black and white. A report by the Danish Road Directorate Vejdirektoratet found that increasing the speed limit actually had a positive effect on the number of road accidents. The two-year study looked at the effect of increasing the limit on rural roads from 80km/h (50mph) to 90km/h (56mph). Since 2011, accident numbers have fallen because the difference between the fastest and slowest cars was reduced, resulting in less overtaking. Slower drivers became faster with the new higher speed limit in place, while the fastest 15% of drivers only drove one km/h faster, going against the thinking that a higher limit means everyone automatically drives like a lunatic. “if there is a large difference between speeds, then more people will attempt to overtake, so the more homogeneous we can get the speeds on the two-lane roads, the safer they will become,” Vejdirektoratet spokesperson Rene Juhl Hollen commented. Backing up the claim are Danish motorway figures. Fatalities have decreased in the country since the speed limit was increased from 110km/h (68mph) to 130km/h (81mph) nearly a decade ago. Danish traffic officer Erik Mather said of the findings: “The police are perhaps a little biased on this issue, but we’ve had to completely change our view now that the experiment has gone on for two years.”

What about “the quality of roads?” Surely, all these potholes we love to complain about, the poor signage and the faded traffic lines are a risk, right? Surely, if we could build better roads, we should have safer roads – not so? Well, it depends.

Okay. Fine. But what about warnings and signs, you ask? Surely THAT must influence road safety!? Yes and no. Let’s start with WHY a sign is installed. Take the classic: “Warning, potholes”. Why do you think this sign is installed on roads where potholes are present? Is it to PREVENT accidents? Is it to cause you to slow down and not fall prey to vehicle damage or a loss of control? If you ask legislators, they will surely tell you that. But think about it this way: They potholes are there because the department responsible for maintaining the road is (probably) bankrupt, underfunded, understaffed or simply indifferent or inefficient. Fixing potholes costs a lot more than installing one sign on each side, saying “Caution: potholes”. Now, if there is no sign and the department fails to maintain the road, you could sue them if you suffer damages. But, if they warned you, you would have no excuse and it would be “your fault” because you “failed to keep a proper lookout”. Nice!

So – by this argument, we could say that the sign is there to eliminate liability in a case where there is simply not enough money, time or resources to fix the problem. But for how long? We all know about roads where the pothole signs are probably older than us, not so? Imagine if the same “rules” applied to road users. If you had a shortage of time, money and resources to maintain your vehicle, could you put a sign on the back, saying “Caution” unroadworthy vehicle” and get away with it? Most certainly not.

But let’s get back to research. You will come across the naysayers that will offer the old “okay fine, but what must we do about it?” argument. AS this article aims to illustrate, we need to abandon dogma. “Conventional thinking” is simply not enough. We need to take a leaf out of the book of Alcoholics Anonymous, we need to admit that we have a problem. Once this happens, we need to stop the blame game. We need to stop trying to justify the condition by blaming others, conditions, circumstances, the past and each other, just like a recovering alcoholic.

From here, we need to start calling on the best minds of our time (not the dogmatic dinosaurs to f yesterday) to propose and develop new strategies for road safety research. We need to identify specific fields of interest and relevance in our setting: SA. The research needs to include elements of our social, economic, religious and cultural forces. We need to go to the root of road use psychology and start our research at primary school. We need to research over longer periods, across more disciplines, involving a greater sample (of cases, people and vehicles) and we need to commit our greatest effort to truly understanding the problem. But first, we need to define it. What exactly is wrong with road safety in SA?

If we were to define the problem properly, we would be better served to compare ourselves to countries with similar problems; not at random to “first world countries”. No matter how well the models work in the US, UK or Australia, we cannot simply adopt them and then walk around proudly declaring equal status. In the UK, the “problem” might be urban density while in the US, traffic density. In Australia it might be speed and in Sweden, culture.

What is wrong with us?

SA is unique. We have a history of imbalance between different segments of society. Some are well educated and grew up in a “protected” environment, driving to school in cars every day and seeing another but privilege. Others, not so much; they walked to school, grew up in a violent society and saw only poverty. These life experiences mould our perception of the world, our expectations of others, our sense of community and even our self-imposed values. Both those extremes, among many others, are forced to co-exist in a road environment where entitlement and cultural tensions are at a high. The physical result is what transport researchers call traffic friction.

Traffic friction is the notion that traffic flow is affected by differences in traffic motion, some drive slower than others. But it is also affected by many other things, like intersection types, so-called “late merging” and following distance. Then there is departure lag (you know” that guy who’s on this phone, then the light turns green and he sits there until you hoot?) and late braking. All these vehicle dynamics and movement dynamics are affected by road design and faults and failures as well. Whether it’s broken traffic lights, stolen stop signs, lanes that are too narrow or speed limits that are too high (or low, remember) – all these dynamics conspire to increase traffic friction.

It is true that there will not be any short-term solution to the long-standing issue of road safety. It is true that few people (if any) in SA heave enough interest to initiate proper research. It is also true that the courts might not be ready to receive complex arguments that involve cultural upbringing in the analysis of collision causes. But you can be assured: unless we admit our problem, start taking road safety a lot more seriously and commit to a start, we are doomed to continue our failure.


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