Driving Miss Daisy

Road safety is something that is close to us all, unless you live in the remote countryside or are a frequent visitor to Olympus Mons – oh the rarefied air of Mars brings back memories.

Whatever your view of the current UK government, it also seems that they consider it important too. Important enough for a firm strategy paper to be published. It doesn’t get more important than that. I speak of the DfT Strategic Framework for Road Safety. Browsing through its 75 pages, it covers numerous issues – previous trends, how different stakeholders can work together to improve things (that’s Big Society thinking i.e. everyone else but the government), training and the ever popular and inventive punishments. Indeed, the penalty for reaching for a sandwich whilst driving will soon be less than recklessly flushing the world’s financial banking system down the toilet (or did that happen already? Oh yes, they got an enhanced pension didn’t they?)

Road deaths are now around a third of what they were 30 years ago. The reasons for this are complex (well, actually, it’s just 1 divided by 3). Though figures continue to decline despite increasing road traffic, there are still around 2000 road deaths (and many more injured) every year. Up to a third of these are work-related. As you might expect, a disproportionate number (around half) of these fatalities are motorcyclists, pedal cyclists and pedestrians rather than car occupants. I know this seems trivial compared to deaths from occupational (or other) diseases, but it is nonetheless an avoidable waste of life.

Education and training for drivers and riders has changed much. Go back far enough and you’ll find training was either none existent or perfunctory. A drive round the block and there you are. It still is in some countries. Now days driver training and assessment is long and complicated. But some would argue it is not effective. It has frequently faced the accusation that it isn’t training people with all the skills and attitudes needed to drive but simply those needed to pass the test.

Driving on the roads is principally a psychomotor (physical coordination) skill that is honed by practice. But that practical skill is underpinned by knowledge of the rules, recognition of signs, theory of how vehicles operate (especially limitations) and developing tolerant attitudes to other road users. You might have assumed through casual observation that people have also been trained in the fine arts of tailgating, rapid undertaking, inventive expletives, effective texting whilst driving, speeding and testing the locus of traction around corners. But no, these come naturally to people – it’s called selfishness or unthinkingness and it leads us into errors, mistakes and deliberate wilful acts that we all make at some time or other or at least have thought about.

Because road traffic incidents are multi-causal in nature and especially because they involve humans, identification of risk factors and effective options to tackle them is complicated. Indeed the same solution may not be effective universally or even in the same place all the time. Even chewing gum loses its flavour eventually. When you have a limited budget and many people shouting, devising effective national solutions becomes a priority for a government.

Now it’s a good ergonomic principle to try and design the world around us as far as possible so it fits in with, or takes account of, our natural physiological and psychological limitations and tendencies. For example, taking account of the classic ways in which we make errors. That then makes it easier for us humans because it’s how we work. I would hasten to add, we should fight the tendency to self-destruction as alluring as it seems and especially in the nuclear industry.

And here’s where education and training comes in. It’s recognised that a little bit of re-education (not the type with a cricket or baseball bat) can work wonders instead of punishment. Though, for some, this is punishment. However, this won’t work with the core of determined reckless repeat offenders. So, re-education is just for the silly errors, the ones we all make but didn’t mean too – honest guv. The government intends to widen the existing range of courses to cover more minor offences like this. Given that some training courses can cost more than penalties and points I wonder whether some will do the maths before deciding which option to take…..

The proposals also cover extending existing learner driver/rider training. Though this may be taken out of their hands; there have been shadowy figures in Brussels pushing this for years – anyone would think they didn’t like motorcycles and cars. Maybe it’s because they don’t drive themselves anymore, because they’re shadowy….

The strategy reproduces a very interesting graph (from an earlier report) which demonstrates that whatever your age (17 or 60), accident potential rapidly drops with increasing experience after passing your driving test. Yes, the young have often been demonised as universally reckless but it just isn’t true. Yes, there appear to be more reckless young than reckless old, but it seems that age, whilst still a significant factor, is not nearly as significant as experience when it comes to driving. This is probably true for other things in life too – doesn’t seem to work with the National Lottery or Wimbledon Tickets, probably just who you know and a penchant for Strawberries and Cream).

They aim to introduce unaccompanied driving into the training. This to me seems to have been a surprising omission from previous driver training, though by necessity it has always been a feature of motorcycle rider training. Given that this is precisely what you are allowed to do immediately after the test but which you have not been allowed to prior to this, its inclusion seems very valid. Mental note – make tests as close as possible to the real thing.

They will also remove all the helpful cheat stuff that people have come to rely upon – published test routes and live theory test question banks. This has lead to the practice of only drilling people in these possibilities of which a selection is certain to come up in the test. Instead, routes will not be published and live questions will all be new and different, though of the same style. They also plan to include case studies; that’s a good thing because it reflects what life and driving are like; it forces you to see connections and integrate knowledge to develop problem solving and understanding. They aim to revise the syllabus, perhaps including a Heavy Goods Vehicle awareness component (before it crushes you), and also revise existing provision for post-test training.

Undoubtedly this will all make the test harder to pass and whether this will result in better drivers remains to be seen. Folk wisdom has always maintained that the most effective way to get people to drive safely is to place a 12 inch spike in the centre of the steering wheel. The sentiment of personal consequences is noted but there is no room for the errors which we all inevitably make. Now, where did I put that sandwich again……