About the health and safety of roads

Please leave your thoughts about road safety below. What are your stories of road risks getting pushed through the system unduly, or road dangers not being identified or not being managed properly?

Back in February I had written an abstract about inclusive road safety for the Proceedings of the ICE. In August I heard that I was to proceed with a submission for peer review. With that in mind, I have slowly started thinking about road safety, danger and risk, perhaps also about limitations of unbounded freedoms again. There are so many aspects which aren’t right about the way we currently approach road safety in the UK.

One such ways relates to boundaries of assessments. I mused about it in 2012 in my previous blog. As a Chartered Engineer it strikes me hard: the leniency we take to assessing risks when it comes to our roads. In engineering we have a system called ERIC which when looking at a new project asks to start with a boundary assessment. But, and speaking from my forays into road safety as an activist as well as an engineer, we tend to forgo that when assessing road safety. Road safety is a micro-managed activity, jumping straight to C (control), when we should have Eliminated, Reduced or Isolated the risk first.

Of course there are institutional and managerial boundaries, and challenges, that mess with the risk assessment process. The road-safety risk assessor would have to liaise with planners and engineers to come to a complete and holistic assessment and reach a conclusion fully inclusive of these wider inputs. Instead institutional arrangements mean that things are typically dealt with in isolation, resulting in a stretch of guard rail, or a road crossing after many years of fighting for one, but may it not be on the users’ desire line.

Our approach to road safety is that of a shaming witness. A long time ago, we began forgetting about the real dangers and from then on only ever have engaged with the fringes of the safety system, we are individually taught to cope but don’t collectively manage the risk. We are back at C.

Different fields also assess risks differently, using different codes and have different practices. A construction site will have a risk assessment in place for what’s going on inside the construction site boundaries. Going outside that physical boundary, beyond the Heras fencing, and the risks get managed in a very different way. We are back in the public sphere, back on the road so to speak, with a different level of risk acceptance. These sites and their different rules and risks may blur and spill. This photo sums up just how that can happen. Inside: all the gear – and outside? We have lost the walk and cycle space. The footpath and cycleway are now gone (actually subsumed into the construction site) and the risk is pushed onto the public passer-by. (Why the local authority accepted this, I do not know. It was not just uncomfortable; this temporary situation was actually intrinsically unsafe.)

If our roads were classified as a ‘workplace’ however all sorts of health and safety rules would kick in. Using the principles of health and safety – and good project management more generally – would include effective crash investigations when things go wrong. This can help future learning and could aid prevention.

The OECD has called for a whole-system approach http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/transport/cycling-health-and-safety_9789282105955-en#page25

The Dutch call it sustainable safety https://www.swov.nl/rapport/Factsheets/UK/FS_Sustainable_Safety_principles.pdf

In the UK it seems we have opened the door to cars to flood into our lives and onto our roads and streets (see Urry, Knoflacher and various others), a flood which we now find difficult to manage (confer with behavioural economics, Tragedy of the Commons). It does feel a bit like the Jack and the Genie, together, popped out of Pandora’s Box. There are many downward spirals associated with automobility on the whole, and with regards to road safety in particular

  • road danger from motor traffic means people cycle on footway, endangering pedestrians, as one example
  • motor traffic danger resulting in people not cycling
  • car parked on double yellow lines or endangering others
  • a car parked on footway, blocking the footway so the perhaps infirm or inexperienced pedestrian has to divert their path into the road, into danger

Someone else is picking up the damage. Road risk has been externalised. The causer is detached from the effect.

Clearly, the danger starts with motor traffic. If not managed adequately the danger then gets passed on to the more vulnerable. How much we want to accept road danger, discomfort and its overall toll on society is a moral question. We must answer it, so we can honestly conduct the business of road safety, holistically, fully. Frankly, right now, we are not managing this appropriately. And at least engineers have the knowledge.

In the paper I am drafting I intend to give a couple of road safety management examples. These will be from Newcastle. This will not be to say that Newcastle is worse than other road-safety management organisations. But it simply reflects where I live. Newcastle is my place of work and my place of activism for road justice and better cities. I am thinking of examples relating to

  • road safety assessment for a change to the highway
  • Section 39 assessments
  • road safety assessment for events

I may explore further Beckman’s words of the balance between mobility and immobility

But no matter how safe transport is going to be, mobility will always be imperfect – because it always comes in a double pack, together with immobility. Improving safety and, thus, hoping for more mobility, will lead to just as much immobility.

This, to me, seems to take the longer haul and acknowledges wider boundaries. We cannot keep shining tiny spotlights into a dark room. To see the elephant we are dealing with, we actually have to switch on the lights or tear down the walls.

We have mothers crying out for justice and yet the system remains completely cold and immobile to that. We have local authorities wanting to increase cycling level. Bringing this together is an institutional problem that needs a very different approach in the future. But the processes are there. They are known to us. They are there for the taking of the road-safety management organisations to adopt and use.

Please leave your thoughts about road safety below. What are your stories of risks getting pushed through the system unduly, or risks not being identified or not being managed appropriately?


Beckmann, J. (2004). “Mobility and Safety.” Theory, Culture & Society 21(4-5): 81-100.

11 thoughts on “About the health and safety of roads

  1. Where does one start? Perhaps at the ends of all these green and brown lines.


    Here’s the end of one:


    yet the central grass median gets even wider behind the point view, so the space was/is there for the path to carry on to the next junction. Why pitch the rider into a busy dual carriageway at a point that is highly arbitrary, badly done and obviously risky from the user’s point of view?

    But I’m mainly here with a plea to include shared use off-road paths in the risk assessments. After all, unbundling modes is a key element in many high-cycling countries, yet the state of a lot of off-road (non-bridleway) paths in the UK (especially Elmbridge) is appalling. Here’s an example:

    We’ve been at the council for years about this, but their last ploy was demanding we submit a higher standard of evidence than would get it repaired if it was part of the highway (a simple note on fillthathole or fixmystreet usually gets that done within days, and yes, this path was put on both over 3 years ago, to no avail). Path repairs need similar or less forgiving criteria to those that trigger road repairs, for which there is a legal duty, but at the moment the opposite is often the case.


  2. I understand there are three key domains of the built environment, buildings, life between buildings and systems – transport water drainage comms.

    What seems to have happened is that boundaries can reasonably placed around buildings and systems – health and safety at work, cdm, aircraft, rail, shipping, health ….

    You note Dutch and iced processes, they also exist with Swiss and many others .

    Britain is badly behind the curve here, and I think there are two reasons for this, a basic distrust of rationality and favouring of amateurism and pragmatism, and a non understanding of common wealth.

    The Swiss have mapped everything in detail and then build other structures on top of their basic systems, keeping things ordered and logical – their land boundaries are used to set taxes, this is very common, things support and strengthen.

    We do not do this in Britain, we continually increase muddle and then try to fix it, we are not even aware we might have followed a desire line in the first place, if we realise they exist – I believe the uk national motto is if it is simple make it complex.

    There are tfour key authors here – Odum, ostrom and meadows


  3. I have recently submitted the following to the Law Commission as I understand the law of this whole area requires complete review

    In general terms, what is the problem that requires reform?
    Road traffic law

    Can you give an example of what happens in practice?
    For example, if you are a solicitor or barrister, you might describe how the problem affects your clients.
    There is a clear mismatch between law and practice in different professional areas, for example health and safety at work, aviation, shipping, medical practice and road law.
    There are very significant possibilities for general overarching law that uses best practice from other areas. It is as if “life between buildings” has become a legal backwater, with traditions that do not match practice in other areas.

    To which area(s) of the law does the problem relate (please tick one or more box)?
    Administrative or public law Criminal law
    Property or land law
    Commercial or contract law
    Consumer law Regulatory law
    Planning and environment
    Other (please state): Equality Health And Safety Aviation Shipping Medical Practice

    We will be looking into the existing law that relates to the problem you have described. Please tell us about any court/tribunal cases, legislation or journal articles that relate to this problem.
    You may be able to tell us the name of the particular Act or a case that relates to the problem.

    This link discusses the ways incidents and accidents are managed in aviation, using preventative pro-active methods. In contrast, incidents on roads use concepts like “killed and serious injuries” and give the impression they are not looking at everything in detail.

    A motor vehicle is a moving heavy machine that is being operated by someone licenced. There are myriad opportunities for defining common principles but for some reason I do not understand, this has not happened. I understand for example that the HSE does not investigate incidents at work that occur on highways, there would seem to be bureaucratic interpretations of “workplace” for example that are not needed and prevent dissemination of best practice.

    Similarly, the requirement to be at work also limits opportunities for improvement to the common wealth

    Can you give us information about how the problem is approached in other legal systems?
    You might have some information about how overseas courts or tribunals approach the problem.

    I am requesting that already existing excellent practices be checked to ensure they do not have unneccessary barriers like workplaces, or highways, and that the principles be clearly elucidated with subsections about how to apply them in particular areas. Currently, we seem to write law for the particular areas, which surely creates a huge amount of duplication.

    Within the United Kingdom, does the problem occur in any or all of England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland?

    What do you think needs to be done to solve the problem?
    Establish clear legal principles about prevention, precaution, equality, risk, hazard, nuisance, tort, damage, assault, trespass and related areas and ensure they are equally applicable in all areas of law. It is in fact not obvious that highways law is required, as it could be a subsection of other areas.

    What is the scale of the problem?
    This might include information about the number of people affected this year or the number of cases which were heard in a court or tribunal over a particular period.

    Several thousand deaths and serious injuries. Huge societal costs.

    What would be the benefits of reform? In particular, can you identify any:
    economic benefits (costs of the problem that would be saved by reform); or
    other benefits, such as societal or environmental benefits?
    For example, if the problem is one which must usually be resolved in court, court fees might be payable; this money might be saved if the problem was reformed. If it involves consulting a solicitor or barrister, legal costs might be relevant. Or, if the problem was one which caused significant costs to businesses, you might be able to tell us how much time or money businesses would save.

    Huge savings across whole of society. I understand a key issue is that the issue is not recognised.

    If this area of the law is reformed, can you identify what the costs of reform might be?
    The costs of reform might include, for example, the cost of the legal profession and judiciary undertaking training to learn about a new statute.

    There may actually be significant cost savings, as aim would be clear comprehensive law that is open understood and agreed.

    Does the problem affect certain groups in society, or particular areas of the country, more than others? If so, what are those groups or areas?
    As an example, if the law relates to agricultural land, it might affect farmers and their families more than the general population.

    This affects everyone

    In your view, why is the Law Commission the appropriate body to undertake this work, as opposed to, for example, a Government department, Parliamentary committee, or a non-Governmental organisation?

    Because I understand this to be at base a legal problem. Different areas of law and practice have grown up over time and have not been reviewed to tease out the real commonalities and strengths of areas that can easily be applied more generally.

    Have you been in touch with any part of the Government (either central or local) about this problem? What did they say?

    Particular organisations are obviously working within their own processes and find it very difficult to think how else might matters be structured. They are doing things right as they believe, but have not asked are they doing the right things?

    Is any other organisation such as the Government or a non-Governmental group currently considering this problem? Have they considered it recently? If so, please give us the details of their investigation of this issue, and why you think the Law Commission should also look into the problem.
    Not known


  4. I might not have made clear my key point 🙂

    Boundaries are one way of managing what are actually issues of the commons, by chopping up the commons into bits – how do you eat an elephant? A bite at a time.

    There are other ways, but these commonwealth cooperative ways are being forgotten and often for ideological reasons, asserted that they don’t exist.

    Ostrom is the key author about this. Managing the commons, which roads or life between buildings are, isn’t difficult.

    It does require understanding ecosystems.


  5. Sorry for delay getting around to this.

    This twitter thread highlighted something we see frequently: https://twitter.com/UrbaneCommuter/status/400652725878128641

    Traffic Engineers doing something which we (and they, if they’re within 10 years of up to date) know will create a deadly hazard in a road design – adding pinch points, not protecting cyclists at busy left turn.

    When there is a response from the public complaining about the dangerous road design, they stick a bloody sign up, as if that would ever help.

    The signpost in Macclesfield precedes one of the most awful bits of cycling infrastructure imaginable – discontinuous, leaves you on the wrong side of the road without priority, supposedly to help kids get to school. However before these kids ever get near they have to deal with speeding cars squeezing them at pinch points.

    I never saw a child cycling to that school when I worked near there. The car traffic along the road was terrible, but the alternatives were excluded. I didn’t like riding it as a fully grown cycle-loving big bloke. Drivers were intimidating, tailgating, close passing and occasionally horny. So no, the sign didn’t work. They should have sacked the engineer and started again.


  6. Bit late getting around to this, so I shall apologise.

    The title of this is interesting, as by and large roads are safe, it’s the use of that isn’t, and that unsafe use overwhelmingly comes from people driving. As a society, we’ve excused bad driver behavior for far too long, because the popular perception is that “everybody” drives. They don’t, but the driver lobby is both vocal and powerful. Yes, people on foot and bikes can present a risk, but the risk is usually equal or greater to themselves rather than others. It’s that imbalance of risk, which is greatly magnified by mass and speed that’s the root cause.

    What can be done?
    In the short term, the existing laws need to be enforced much more rigorously so any offence caught is penalised. The current “hardship” excuse and 12 point limits need to be reconsidered. At the end of the day a driving licence is a privilege by licence and persistent and serious breaches need to be punished. Society needs to break the myth that road offences are not “real crime”. They are some of the most widespread anti-social problems in our neighbourhoods

    Longer term is about re-engineering the environment and mindsets so that vehicles are not so dominant. This means much more blocking up of residential streets to reduce through traffic whilst keeping filtered permeability for walking and cycling. The articles on the Newcycling website regarding sustainable safety are some of the best I’ve read.

    As an example of mindset change needed, I had a conversation with someone last week about a road near me, which has seen two or three serious collisions (one fatal) in recent years. The road is a mix of 30 and 40 mph limits. The LA “desire” is to unify the limit to a constant 40. This to me seems madness and we should be going the other way. It’s about a 1.5 mile stretch

    the world and UK also needs to wake up to and talking about the wider impacts on society from driving, like they did with smoking. Maybe we need to refer to it as “passive driving” or “secondary driving” to highlight the dangers from pollution, congestion, noise


  7. There is mention above of Traffic Engineers : a title that implies that their job is to manage traffic I.e. Motorised vehicles – and the aim of that management is to reduce journey times (make the traffic move more smoothly and faster).

    Sometimes they are called Roads Engineers when the focus is on the infrastructure : but the underlying assumption that it’s about providing a good environment for vehicles (which at this point might just include bicycles) to move about.

    I prefer the term Transport Engineers who job is to enable the movement of people and goods rather than metal boxes with wheels. There is then some hope that an integrated approach that considers all modes together may be possible.


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