Stop focusing on the unlocked door

Would it make sense to be alarmed about a house’s door being unlocked, preaching to the occupant of the house about how they’ll be burgled or murdered if they don’t lock the door, if the house is on fire? I feel that’s what we’re doing with the cycle helmet and high visibility clothing issue connected to cycle safety.

This video is a vivid illustration of what I mean. The cyclist is clothed in high visibility gear, and wearing a helmet, riding a bicycle that’s in good condition, obeying every single traffic law, but still things go wrong. Why? The equivalent of the house fire is driver behaviour. Without any motorised vehicle on the road,  cyclist and pedestrian fatalities would drop to zero or near it. Driver behaviour is blatantly and clearly the primary issue in almost all vulnerable road users’ serious injuries and fatalities. We simply must stop demanding that vulnerable road users be perfect before we turn our attention away from them and towards the core of the problem: driver behaviour.

Drivers, drains, and brains

My route to college includes a road with a Z bend: sharp right followed immediately by a sharp left. That exact section of road also has a number of recessed drains probably about twenty metres apart. Therefore, even cyclists who don’t believe in the merits of vehicular cycling* have to move to a position in line with where motor traffic’s closest-to-the-kerb tyre would run.

On Thursday two car drivers overtook me on the turn, one giving an oncoming driver a near heart attack because overtaking on a blind bend is not a good idea. No accident, but a close call. What took the cake was that I joined a queue of waiting traffic at the T junction about thirty metres after the bends… right behind both cars that had overtaken me dangerously.

Now, I get that people are frustrated by cyclists slowing them down to a fraction of the speed they are capable of and allowed. What intrigues me is what foundational thinking framework is lodged in the mind of a driver that results in them making the split-second decision that overtaking the cyclist is worth the risk of one of the most dangerous types of collisions: head-on with a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction. The situation Thursday highlighted the pointlessness of this risk: these drivers gained literally nothing. I don’t believe in overtaking traffic on the left, but it would have been my legal right to do so and to cross that intersection before them. As it was, I stayed in the queue of traffic, so they risked collision, injury, death for the sake of making a right turn at best thirty seconds before me.

There is no logic here, so what prompts such folly? I am convinced that dangerous road user behaviour doesn’t start with the moment in which poor decisions are made. Therefore, changing such behaviour will not start with addressing the moment in which poor decisions are made. The key lies in shifting the springboard from which these decisions originate. I believe also that this behaviour is most visible in road user interactions involving cyclists, but that the “bakermat” – the place of origin – of a lot of dangerous road user behaviour resulting in injury and death is the same.

Imagine if we could address that core, if we could shift the launch pad to direct decisions into a safer trajectory. It could save so many lives.

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*Vehicular cycling means you cycle as part of the traffic stream, placing yourself in line with other vehicles for visibility and predictability (our eyes are in the front of our heads, so cycling as close to the kerb as possible takes you out of the line of sight and focus of drivers, and violates the Road Safety Authority’s advice to “Be Safe, Be Seen”. It also places you in the lane with the highest number of obstacles, increasing your risk of swerving into oncoming traffic – drain covers, holes, debris, pedestrians stepping into the road without looking which yes, happens unbelievably often. A British qualitative study mentioned cyclist unpredictability as a major stressor for drivers, so putting yourself in a lane where you’re more likely to swerve unpredictably does drivers no favours, even if they don’t realise that). Segregation (separated cycle lanes) seems to work better for cycling safety, but in a situation where you have no other choice but to share a surface with motorised traffic, many argue it is the safest practice.

How much time does speeding save you?

I went through a shameful phase when I was under enormous stress, expected to be in two places at once. Quite literally. As a result, I used to speed. I’m often reminded of how stupid I’d been, when I read of accidents, see it on the news, and last night when a friend lost control on a slippery road – luckily escaping with only a few bruises. It made me think of what got me to just stop speeding.

It’s virtually impossible to say, when someone gets in a car, what the odds are of them having an accident. There are so many factors to consider: how alert are they, how rested, have they taken any medicines, drugs or alcohol? What state is the car in? What’s the state of the road they’re travelling on? What time of day is it? That said, a rough guide has been put together.

On a good quality urban road, the risk of accident increases by about 4% for every 1km/h increase in speed.

If you have to travel 25km, it would take you 25 minutes at an average of 60km/h. If you speed up to 70km/h, you will save 3.5 minutes. You will increase your risk of being in an accident by 40%.

Make it an average of 80km/h, and the risk increases by 80% in return for 6 minutes 25 seconds saved.

If you’re travelling on a less perfect rural road, as many of the roads in Ireland are, the risk goes up 5.5% for every 1km/h increase in speed.

If you have to travel 50km, it would take you 37 minutes 30 seconds at 80km/h. You can slice 7.5 minutes off that time by speeding up to 100km/h, by increasing your risk of accident by 110%.

In Ireland, the speed limit on most motorways is 120km/h. The higher the speed, the greater the risk of accidents, because our reaction time stays the same, while the time we’re given to prevent disaster decreases. However, these roads tend to be wider and better maintained. As a general guide, it is assumed the risk of accident increases by about 2% for every km/h increase in speed.

If you have to travel 100km, it will take you 50 minutes at 120km/h. Speed up to 130km/h, and the 20% increase of risk buys you…

Four minutes.

Speed up to 140km/h, and you’ll save…

Seven minutes.

We tend to overestimate how much time we’ll save by speeding. – it won’t get you there as much quicker as you think. Furthermore, the severity of the consequences of an accident increases in direct proportion to the speed at which it happens. The higher the speed, the higher the risk of death, disability, horror injuries that leave people unable to live normal lives.

accident_speed_01accident_speed_02It really is just not worth it.