Correlated causes or Can I unpick your brain, please?

I was looking back in time this week a little bit, yes, still reading. And I was once more overcome with amazement just how much officials officially know and manage to still stand still.

What do they know?

Roads induce demand

Well, we know that building roads has a real good chance of creating new car journeys (and hence perpetuating the UK’s car dependence problem), see SACTRA (1994).

Yet the government is just always tantalisingly near-starting a new road building programme promising billions in investment (!) in the road network – CBT shows some ‘zombie roads’ project on their Roads to Nowhere website.

What powers are really at play here?

Cognitively challenged

We know that the human mind is rather cognitively challenged in any case… and just imagine what potential the driving activity has to add to that, in particular. It may well mean that the human mind needs much more help to cope with the power and responsibilities vested in operating heavy machinery around people (commonly known as driving a car). This may be especially relevant in urban areas where complexities unfold and the unexpected can happen just round the blind corner.

Add speed to the equation and reflexes and it becomes a physiological problem too.

But maybe the decision makers don’t know these things? Possibly the politicians don’t, but I’d think it’s a public duty to know these kind of things as a public servant – such as someone working at the DfT – and inform the ministers.

But they may already know.

Aggravating attitudes

We know we hold bad attitudes (and they make us do things). TRL carried out an ‘attitude survey’ for Department for Transport DfT in 2002, asking questions about drivers’ perceptions of cyclists. The report states that there are

  • [P]oints of stress in the relationships between motor vehicle and cycle users and that the interplay between a number of factors is responsible for influencing the behaviour of drivers towards cyclists
  • Motor vehicle users seem to reserve their active concern for other motor vehicle users
  • [M]otorists hold negative views about cyclists and tend to view cycle users as an ‘out group’ with significantly different characteristics from most road users
  • When drivers encounter cyclists in circumstances that cause them to slow or deviate, in the case of this research a central refuge, their estimation of the cyclist’s discourtesy increases, regardless of the cyclist’s actual behaviour

The report then discusses road narrowing as an undesirable design feature for cycling safety, and makes various suggestions for improvements, listing Highway Design as the first improvement category, followed by Awareness Raising and Enforcement, before suggesting further research (naturally).

More attitude

Let’s have a  look at another DfT report, Attitudes to road safety – the latest is from 2011. Somewhat cementing, I’d argue, the above – it makes the following statements in the conclusion and summary section

  • In general, most drivers view their own driving in a favourable light. The majority see themselves as safer than most other drivers, they sometimes get annoyed with others, and consider themselves to be law-abiding drivers. However, there were often discrepancies between respondents’ attitudes and their reported behaviours.
  • There is evidence for a widespread disregard of speeding laws. The vast majority of drivers admitted to having exceeded the speed limit in the 12 months prior to interview. This is despite the fact that people seem well aware of the dangers of speeding, with the majority agreeing that greater speed increases the likelihood of serious injury. Furthermore, although in general people wanted to see greater enforcement of traffic laws and harsher penalties, views were much more mixed in relation to the issue of exceeding the speed limit.

There are some interesting gender differences highlighted in the report too (and I may come back to that a later time).

It’s hard to ignore the likely presence of cognitive dissonance too: knowing speeding can kill / is bad and knowingly not adhering to the limits. Another human bias is evident: ‘I am better than others’ or technically termed illusory superiority bias.

We start to see that a ‘driving human’ has certain faults and flaws. I suggest in a road system that does not adequately provide for cycling (like the UK) lives are put at risk by ignoring these behavioural / cognitive imperfections.


If politicians were looking to build a picture of what the electorate wants, I propose this would need a little bit of discerning and picking apart. Saying we “build more roads” or “end the war on the motorist” or unreflectively ramble on about the fuel price escalator may not cut the mustard. In fact it is likely to disenfranchise swathes of the UK population who have quite different needs to the needs perceived by the decision-making (and still largely ‘malestreaming’) elite.

And, moreover, one tier down from the political platform, the DfT is ‘holding firm’ too. Recently, from what I understand, they have again explicitly stated they are not looking to update/grade the (outdated) design guidelines for cycling infrastructure design. I am perplexed by the logic as this would be a good starting point – it would be a good practical thing to do.

But perhaps we have entered into an age of emotive and populist politics that is now not just actively celebrating cognitive dissonance, but has come to rely on it and would not exist without its constant state of confusion. In which case, reading 1984 and listening to Adam Curtis might free you. Or it could lock you in insanity. Forever. And a day.

Picking brains apart

Coming back to my research and the relevance to the above, it seems that people’s thinking is near-geologically stratified in accordance to their life-stories, events and other goings-on. Constructing and conducting interviews about transport and getting meaningful results and outcomes must be a ‘mindfield’.


SACTRA. (1994). Trunk roads and the generation of traffic. Department for Transport

TRL et al. (2002). Drivers perception of cyclists (TRL549). Department for Transport

DfT. (2011). Attitudes to road safety – analysis of driver behaviour (report 122). Department for Transport


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s