Monday, 15 February 2010

This must never happen again

"Victim blaming" started
quite early on as this article
from 1929 illustrates
According to the World Health Organisation, the coroner who looked into the world's first car crash fatality, back in 1896, said "This must never happen again".

Unfortunately, it did happen again. These days, there are 1.2 million people killed every year by car crashes and another 50 million injured. If road deaths continue to grow at the expected rate, it is estimated that we will have seen growth of more than 60% between 2000 and 2020, meaning that nearly 2 million people per year will lose their lives in car crashes by that time.

"Most of these injuries will occur in developing countries where more and more people are using motorized transport. In these countries, cyclists, motorcyclists, users of public transport, and pedestrians are especially vulnerable to road traffic injuries."

An Atomic Bomb. Not nearly so
deadly as automobiles.
In total, motor vehicles have killed more people in the last hundred years than wars have (I mentioned this in a previous post, but it bears repeating). Yes, motor vehicles have been far more lethal than such things as nuclear weapons, machine guns and napalm. In fact, you can add up all of the damage done by those things, and all the results of all terrorism right across the world, and still come up short of the death toll due to motor vehicles.

Why do we put up with this ? I have a theory. I've noticed that while the lethality of motor vehicles might seem obvious given the results, people are often very surprised when cars crash and the results are serious. Cars are marketed as being safe.

If we fall when walking, the magnitude of the injury is quite close to what people expect. Normally you'll do no harm at all or perhaps get a minor injury such as a sprained ankle or scraped knee. You can go faster if you run, but you get worn out quickly.

Cycling is a little more unpredictable. We've used a machine to make ourselves faster, but it still takes considerable human effort to raise our speeds much (there's a calculator here which shows how much effort for different speeds). Higher speeds are possible only after you've cycled enough to build the muscles, and experience comes at the same time. Falls hurt much more if you're going faster. If we fall while descending a hill the crash can be particularly dangerous. However, at least when you cycle you know it's going to hurt if you fall off. Personally, I like riding fast, but I'm a timid descender of hills.

Cars give another considerable increase in speed, and there is a further difference. You can go fast for no real effort, and with no practice or skill required. What's more, cars remove the cues that normally make us realise we're travelling fast, such as wind noise, and the feeling of wind in the hair and on the face.

Driving feels safe. It's so sanitised an experience that it's actually boring enough for people to fall asleep while driving at speeds which would keep you very much awake on a bicycle.

This is why it's such a surprise. People often simply don't know what happened when they crashed a car. They're not concentrating on this mundane task. Those who are looking for a thrill in a car tend to drive dangerously. That's not a problem for society if they do so on closed circuits but is if they do it on the public roads. Given that many people claim to like cars and like driving, I've long wondered why so few take up motor sport so they can try their skills.

Anyway, somewhere in middle of this confusion comes the blame shifting. If you walk into someone in the street you would not blame the other person. If you cycle into someone you also probably wouldn't. However, driving somehow changes this. The victims frequently get the blame.

Of course, there is a simple way to solve this problem: Design conflict and risk out of roads by following the principles of sustainable safety.

1.2 million deaths per year are tragic enough, but they're actually just the tip of the ice-berg. There are also 50 million people injured each year by cars. What's more the deaths due to crashes are not all of the deaths. It is difficult to pin down exactly, but some estimates put deaths due to pollution from cars at ten times the figures for crashes and deaths due to effects such as obesity due to a sedentary lifestyle assisted by the car are also significant.

The image at the top left comes from the December 1929 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine. Exactly the same policies, of shifting blame onto pedestrians for being hit by cars, exist all around the world, including in current safety campaigns in the UK.

8 comments:

dr2chase said...

What I find most amazing is the redefinition of "responsibility". In any (US) discussion of cycling on roads, you will find people who believe that "because cycling is dangerous", cyclists must be "responsible" for their own safety -- as if it were a character defect, to not be utterly focused on one's own safety (as if that were not already the case). There's no notion of being responsible for the safety of other people (of course, this would reflect rather poorly on anyone choosing to drive a car when they could get around some other way). It is the logic of an arm's race -- if cyclists were (much) more dangerous to cars, why, wouldn't it then be the "responsibility" of drivers to avoid cyclists, for their own driving safety?

I should note, from various experiments here, that people in cars are not so happy if pedestrians do aggressively (as opposed to passively) attend to their safety. Shine a high-intensity LED flashlight into drivers' eyes at a crosswalk, they do not like that. Push a cart before you into a crosswalk (and why should the pedestrian pause? They have the right, and the car is presumed to be traveling at a safe speed that would allow a stop) is not happy-making, either. Enter a crosswalk with your keys held out in front of you, as if to scratch a non-stopping car, and suddenly the guy who pretended not to see you, can see those itty-bitty keys, and gets angry. Why? If he intended to stop, why should he care about the keys that could only scratch a car that ran the crosswalk?

The "safety" claims are a ruse; we're supposed to stay out of the way.

Kevin Love said...

dr2chase wrote:
"What I find most amazing is the redefinition of 'responsibility.'"

Kevin's comment:
Here in Ontario, we've got the same definition of responsibility that we've always had. To quote from Section 193 of Ontario's Highway Traffic Act:

"When loss or damage is sustained by any person by reason of a motor vehicle on a highway, the onus of proof that the loss or damage did not arise through the negligence or improper conduct of the owner, driver, lessee or operator of the motor vehicle is upon the owner, driver, lessee or operator of the motor vehicle."

I note that Ontario's legislature reviewed the HTA this year and advised Her Majesty the Queen to enact some changes. By Royal Proclamation, those changes came into effect on January 1, 2010. Section 193 was NOT changed.

Source:

http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/html/statutes/english/elaws_statutes_90h08_e.htm#BK280

Kevin Love said...

One thing that kind of bothers me about this sort of discussion is the human irrationality when discussing risk.

For example, swimming is more dangerous than cycling, yet swimmers do not discuss drowning as obsessively as cyclists discuss crashes.

Another example is the fact that cars kill far more people through their pollution than by hitting people. Yet what gets discussed?

In Toronto, car pollution kills 440 people each year and injures another 1,700 so seriously that they have to be hospitalized. I presume that similar numbers apply in other cities, including in The Netherlands. Why isn't that the centre of discussion?

Source:
http://www.toronto.ca/health/hphe/pdf/air_pollution_burden.pdf

David Hembrow said...

Kevin: The legal definition is much the same everywhere. However, societal norms around where blame lies are not, and the police and courts are quite keen on blaming the victims.

Canada is no exception to this, having compulsory safety gear for cyclists, over the top enforcement and the police concerning themselves with silly regulations against cyclists.

I agree with you on the pollution problem and its effects, which may have killed ten times as many people as crashes. However, it's more difficult to understand and it's an issue for another day.

It is difficult enough to get taken seriously the deaths which are so much more obviously caused due to people being in crashes with motor vehicles.

Taliesin said...

"Anyway, somewhere in middle of this confusion comes the blame shifting. If you walk into someone in the street you would not blame the other person. If you cycle into someone you also probably wouldn't. However, driving somehow changes this. The victims frequently get the blame."

And on occasions when a motorist has a deadly collision with something they can't bully, you should hear the car-centric outcry for segregation: This article isn't atypical of the Australian reaction when a driver makes a pretty fundamental mistake. If only cyclists' deaths would result in similar calls for car free infrastructure.

Kevin Love said...

David wrote:
"Canada is no exception to this..."

Kevin's comment:
That's not Canada. All three examples were from British Columbia, which is a strange and bizarre place in so many ways. Including the fact that its #1 agricultural product is marijuana.

Rest assured that, in Ontario, there is no mandatory helmet law for adults, cyclists have the right to the entire road lane (and no obligation to ride in single file) and the police do not concern themselves with silly regulations against cyclists. Because there are none.

Mark said...

David, aside from laws and legislation that we can all squabble about till the cows come home, the facts and figures of your piece are harrowing indeed. But the way in which the motor car is marketed does indeed make the perception of it as being 'safe' - how do we go about conveying the core of your message (ie that road safety is a serious issue) to the wider general public?

Anonymous said...

I think that these casualties are considered to be an unwanted side effect rather than a tragedy or a crime and this attitude owes a lot to the apparent convenience of the car. It is considered “worth the risk” because the users don’t want to give it up, not unlike a heroin addict.
Mark Garrett, Bristol UK