Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Beware of technical fixes

The Scottish Government yesterday outlined its new road safety strategy, with the laudable aim of cutting road deaths by 40% and halving the number of serious injuries within 10 years.

Some of it does seem sensible, such as an approach to driver training which emphasises lifelong learning and improvement. Far too many people consider that passing a test gives them an automatic expert status when it comes to motoring. Only a tiny proportion of drivers will take part in schemes such as Pass Plus, which provide additional training after someone's passed their test.

But there are other proposals which are far more questionable, such as the idea to fit cars with speed limiters. Preventing drivers from exceeding the speed limit initially sounds like a sensible idea, but I think it's a gimmick which is unlikely to make much difference to the accident rate.

For a start, such devices would obviously do nothing to prevent accidents where speed is not a factor, whether that's poor overtaking, tailgating, lack of observation at junctions, lack of lane discipline or drink and drug driving.

But even where speed is a factor in causing an accident, speed limiters won't make much difference. In many cases, the problem isn't necessarily illegal speeding, but driving too fast for the road or the conditions.

For instance, near to where I live there are a couple of stretches of single-track road with several blind bends. The speed limit on those is actually 60mph, but anyone who goes much above 30mph on those is almost certainly a crazy driver. But a speed limiter wouldn't stop someone from going at a potentially suicidal 50mph.

And nor would speed limiters do anything to stop someone going too fast in fog or ice or snow, even if they're not exceeding the legal limit.

In my view, speed limiters sound like the sort of technical fix beloved of governments looking for a gimmick to pretend they're taking action to deal with a problem. Indeed, it could be argued that speed limiters would actually make the problem worse, as they could lull people into thinking they're driving at a safe speed when they're not.

There are other aspects of the strategy which I'm not too keen on either. Curfews for newly qualified drivers? Let's discriminate against people doing a night shift, shall we?

Or a limit on the number of passengers newly-qualified drivers can carry? Some young drivers have a partner and a couple of kids, so that's them screwed.

I'm a bit more ambivalent about limiting the size of engine which young drivers can drive. I can see the logic of this, as many young drivers do like to get behind the wheel of cars which are too powerful for them which they then lose control of and crash. But it strikes me there would be a significant problem with this, as police are not to know how powerful a car really is just by looking at it, so how are they possibly able to enforce such a provision? And is a 40-year-old in a Ferrari really less dangerous than a 20-year-old in a Subaru Impreza?

Although many of these proposals do have their heart in the right place, I think few if any will make much difference to road safety. The main things which will are the improved driver training referred to above, combined with an encouragement for drivers to adopt an attitude where safety is paramount. We should beware of both technical fixes and ineffective legal measures.

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