Rather than “Blame and Shame”, See Road Safety as a Human Right

For long-term road safety, we need to move beyond blaming the individual road user.
For long-term road safety, we need to move beyond blaming the individual road user.

Lately, I’ve been reading a 2016 report by IRTAD titled Zero Road Deaths and Serious Injuries: Leading a Paradigm Shift to a Safe System. It’s just under 200 pages long, but it’s a great introduction to Vision Zero / Safe System / Toward Zero policies and philosophies across the globe, including within the US. I’ve written about Safe Systems in the past several times (e.g., regarding top speeds for survivable collisions, the magic of 43 mphpedestrian safety, traffic cameras), as I strongly agree with the fundamental message that no human loss of life due to auto traffic is acceptable, and that virtually all can be prevented.

Much of the report has to do with paradigm shifts, or the necessary changes we have to undergo as a society in terms of how we perceive road safety in order to create safer environments for all road users. This evening, I found this passage to be a particularly well-written one describing necessary shifts in perspectives on road safety. It’s on page 47 in a section about creating a greater demand for road safety among citizens.

A highly effective way to engage politicians, policy makers and system designers in a debate on a Safe System is to create increased demand for road safety among citizens. The traditional societal view holds that road users bear the main responsibility for road safety hazards. It is they who should be “blamed and shamed” for incidents and measures should focus on correcting their irresponsible behaviour. In contrast, a Safe System is based on the notion that road users are citizens with rights and should be able to take part in road traffic without risking death or serious injury – even if and when they make simple human mistakes. A Safe System also posits that road safety is a shared responsibility, and thus gives citizens the right to demand safe road traffic from society.

Isn’t that just wonderful? And at the same time, completely removed from how most of us view road safety in the United States, and how most discussions regarding road safety are framed? Independence and self-reliance are highly valued traits in US society (as reflected in our lack of universal health insurance, a unique position among fellow rich nations, or our lack of guaranteed maternal leave, a unique position among all but a handful of other countries across the globe). However, the societal importance we place on a lack of reliance on society frequently results in negative consequences for many, many individuals who in aggregate, make up…society.

As a result, when a crash occurs, we look for who is at fault. This is hardly unique to the US, but our conclusions are almost always the same–we blame the end user, the driver. Whether it’s the driver who drove off the road and into a tree or the driver who talked on the cell phone and drove into the opposing lane or the driver who took the turn too fast and rolled the vehicle, there’s always a driver we can blame, and that’s where our crash investigations end. We need to get rid of the bad drivers or at least beat them into becoming better ones. If not for bad drivers, there wouldn’t be collisions, and everyone would be fine.

How else could we examine a crash besides blaming the driver?

While this is an accurate way to look at the problem, it’s not the only way to do so. More importantly, it’s rarely the best way, presuming the goal is to reduce the number of fatalities and serious crashes. The reason why this approach, dubbed “blaming and shaming” in the section above, is ineffective, is because people, by definition, are fallible. Whether the driver leaves the road because he was playing with the radio or because she was trying to avoid a deer or because he was tired or because she was trying to calm her children in the back row, the ultimate point is that the driver is leaving the road.

A Safe System focuses on how to protect the driver, passengers, and anyone else in the vicinity once that road-leaving-event is imminent. That might take the form of a more forgiving shoulder that has a guide-rail that can keep a vehicle from completely leaving the road. It might look like a ditch that has been removed, significantly reducing the risk of a fatal rollover. It might look like a wire fence installed to keep the vehicle away from trees and telephone poles. It might look like a lower speed limit on the road that reduces the likelihood of leaving the road to begin with, or any number of other features. It might be in the vehicle itself, which is equipped with lane-departure warning systems and ESC to help the driver maintain control during emergency maneuvers. Should the driver actually leave the road, it might look like a rapid emergency response service capable of reaching the road within minutes to perform first aid and hospital transport.

This is a different way of looking at collisions and road safety. The focus in all of these cases is to provide redundancy to a.) reduce the likelihood of a collision occurring, b.) mitigate the severity of an imminent collision, and c.)  provide life-saving response services to maximize survivability after the collision occurs. More broadly, the fault isn’t automatically assigned to the road user, should the unfortunate or unthinkable happen. The responsibility is shared among everyone who plays a role in the design of the road, the vehicles that traverse it, and the people within and without those vehicles. The road users are expected to be responsible, yes, but they aren’t expected to be perfect, because, being human, they never will be. They’re given rights–the rights to expect safe roadways and safe vehicles, and the rights to expect to live when they or their loved ones use these roadways.

This is the mentality behind a Safe System / Vision Zero approach. People are valuable, and we need to design systems to protect them, rather than to blame them for being imperfect whenever they inevitably behave like humans.

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