Thursday, 9 October 2008

Subjective safety outside cycling

I've argued in the past that increasing the subjective safety of cyclists is probably the most important thing that can be done to increase cycling. I'm sticking with this. It's easily the biggest difference in the experience of cycling here vs. the UK, and it's pretty obvious which place has most cycling.

It isn't only in cycling that subjective safety is important. The motor vehicle industry has for many years touted the safety of their products. For instance in the very clever Volkswagen ad shown here.

Never mind that a comparable number of people were killed by motor vehicles during the 20th century as in all the wars combined, the message is always that cars are safe. They've also managed to make people think that bigger and more expensive cars are safer, even if it's not always true.

The airline industry is even better at it. It's hardly surprising that many people have a fear of flying. There can be few things more unnatural, or a more inherent feeling of danger, than sitting in a hermetically sealed tube which is travelling several miles above the ground at an incredibly high speed. However airlines present it as something else. Airliners have subdued and relaxing lighting, they hide the nuts and bolts of construction and the necessarily thin pressure bearing walls of the aircraft by nicely decorated and smooth plastic mouldings. The staff speak in a reassuring and controlled manner so as not to alarm passengers. Aviation disaster movies (or anything else alarming) are not scheduled for in-flight entertainment.

And what is happening for cycling ? While what ought to be done is to control the source of the danger, the motor vehicle, the emphasis is all to often placed on cyclists and pedestrians who are expected to behave and dress in ways which attempt to increase their own safety, generally marginally, in a hostile environment. It's the wrong approach because it does not attack the danger, nor the fear of danger head on. The way to increase both safety and subjective safety of cyclists is already known.

Anyway, the motor industry is where we came in, and here's more from them. Relax and enjoy this film, and be reassured that your "living room on wheels" is the safest place in the world...

I have more examples of things concerning subjective safety. To see what it's like to cycle without safety concerns, visit Assen. The photo at the top came from here.


coco said...

Only this morning a 'walking bus' walked past my house, in its way to a nearby school. The 'walking bus' is an initiative designed to encourage people to walk, rather than drive, to school. But (and here's the link to your excellent point about subjective safety) in order to pre-empt health & safety issues, walking buses require every participant, child or parent, to wear these very bright reflective vests (they also require the parents who volunteer to undergo police checks). This is in broad daylight, walking on the pavement in a quiet residential street with very few, easy roads to cross!. The subliminal message for the kids concerned is "walking is hazardous - when I grow up I'll get an SUV like Dad's".

David Hembrow said...

Coco, I agree with what you've said. It sends a terrible message. Just how much of a special, dangerous activity can walking be made out to be ?

I think it's quite interesting to read what David Engwicht, who invented the Walking Bus has to say on the subject.

He (correctly in my view) sees it as an intermediate step to win back confidence so that children can have independent mobility, and correctly says there is no need for it in countries where children already have independent mobility.

However, it seems to me that in the UK this really has not been taken to heart. The emphasis is sometimes on the walking bus almost as an excuse not to make conditions good enough for children ever to have independent mobility.

I've seen plans for a new development in the UK where the developers proposed to set up a walking bus as their contribution to making it a pleasant place to live. This really shouldn't be required in a well planned new development which emphasises walking and cycling as normal modes of transport, but of course the plans were not for a development like that, but rather for more of the same old motor oriented development.

Karl McCracken said...

My first job was with a company that made avionics equipment, and I always remember the poster on my boss's wall:

"Flying is inherently safe. It's just very, very unforgiving of mistakes, and the consequences of these are often fatal".

I just wish I could remember which airframe manufacturer had produced it!

workbike said...

That advert could backfire in the same was as the 'strand' adverts...

Husband: I was thinking of getting a Polo..

Wife: WHAT?!??!

Surly Dave said...

Sorry, I've missed something. Could you point me to the statistic for the world road toll please?

David Hembrow said...

Surly Dave: I'm not entirely sure the roadpeace link above says what it used to say. It now gives a figure of 4000 deaths per day.

This source says that in 1999 there were between 750000 and 880000 people killed, refers to a WHO estimate of 1 M per year, and refers to expected growth to 1 to 1.3 million per year over the "next ten years" (i.e. about now).

China and India now seem to be vying for the grisly position of world leader in road deaths. A price has been put on the carnage at $500 billion per year.

However, a total for the number of deaths in the 20th century ? I found one when I first wrote this, but I'm afraid I can't find it now.

Any such total will of course be an estimate, as no-one is actually trying to count accurately. I think that in itself says a lot.

Mikael said...

I recall the airline industry doing tests that involved turning all the seats on airplanes around to face the back and implementing three-point seatbelts.

These two details would allegedly save many lives in plane crashes. They were never implemented simply because they would make people feel that flying was unsafe.

That's bad for sales.

Restlesstablet123 said...

Joseph Stalin once said that one death is tragic, a million is a statistic. Too right in how we view large numbers of casualties these days.

Cycling in Edmonton from the Eyes of a Teen said...

Thinking about planes, the reason they don't crash is because human error and mistakes are much less likely. Checklists that must be methodically done each time you fly, autopilot, and technology making it even possible to fly the plane without even seeing outside of the cockpit, there is usually a lot of time to rectify mistakes, and not routing planes into each other with large gaps in between have made flying among the safest in the world, possibly the safest. Roads are safest when the remove conflict and give large reaction times and make human error a smaller factor, for the same reasons.