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Risk compensation
15.09.09 by Buffalo Bill

On Thursday, the College of Emergency Medicine will be hosting a live debate on the motion This House Believes Should be Mandatory for All Cycling Children [sic]. Speaking against the motion will be John Adams.

John Adams is an Emeritus Professor of Geography at University College of London. He is best known as a long-standing opponent of seat-belt law. You may have caught him speaking on an edition of Radio 4’s ‘Where did it all go right?’, which focused on the debate leading up to the seat-belt legislation. His theory, which is borne out by the evidence1, is that as people in cars have felt more safe as result of seat-belts, so they have driven more recklessly, and, with no appreciable decline in road casualties, so he asks the question2:

Who
 are 
the 
saved 
and 
who
 are 
those 
sacrificed 
for 
their 
benefit? 
The 
saved 
are 
people 
in
 cars; 
the 
lives
 sacrificed 
are 
those 
of pedestrians 
and 
cyclists. 
The 
best 
protected 
(and 
usually 
the 
economically 
best 
off) 
are 
provided 
further 
protection 
at 
the 
expense
 of
 the 
most 
vulnerable.

His position is more moderate expression of the cliche that drivers would be more careful if they had a six inch spike sticking out of the steering wheel. Other examples of risk compensation in practice is the widely reported study3that showed that when there is a cycle lane, motorists drive within their own marked lane with less recognition of the need to provide a safe and comfortable passing distance to those using the cycle lane ie that the presence of a cycle lane has the opposite of its intended effect – to provide greater room on the road for cyclists.

Yet more evidence of risk compensation is provided by a study4 which showed that wearing a bicycle helmet led to traffic getting significantly closer when overtaking.

I don’t want to prejudge what John Adams will say in response to what will be, no doubt, very emotional rhetoric from from the pro-helmet camp, but I guess it will be along this line:

For
 many 
decades 
road
 safety 
measures 
have 
focused
 on 
making 
vehicles 
safer 
to 
crash 
in
 and
 road
 environments
 more
 forgiving
 of 
heedless 
driving. 
Where 
concern 
has
 been
 directed 
at 
vulnerable 
road
 users 
it 
has 
emphasized
 deference 
to 
traffic.

Pedestrians 
are 
channeled
 by 
guard rails 
or 
forced 
to 
use 
underpasses 
and footbridges. 
Cyclists 
are 
offered
 inadequate 
cycle
 paths, encouraged
 to 
believe
 other 
roads
 are
 dangerous, 
and 
urged
 (and 
in 
some 
jurisdictions 
compelled) 
to 
wear 
helmets. 

Policy 
has
 been
 to
 with draw 
vulnerable
 road
users 
from
 the 
threat, 
rather
 than 
to 
withdraw 
the 
threat 
from 
the 
vulnerable.

The 
group 
most 
 seriously 
affected
 by
 this 
policy 
is 
children. 
The 
fears 
of 
parents 
and 
the
 admonitions
 of 
safety
 campaigners 
such 
as 
the 
Royal 
Society 
for 
the 
Prevention of Accidents 
have
 led 
to 
their 
almost 
complete
 withdrawal
 from
 the 
threat. Traditional 
children’s 
independence 
has 
been 
lost, 
and 
with 
it 
a 
host 
of 
experiences 
vital 
to 
their 
physical 
and 
social 
development.2

I hope that the doctors listen carefully, and rationally, to his case. In the unlikely event that a kids helmet law is brought in, the effect will be to criminalise children for doing something that they ought to be encouraged to do, and discourage others altogether. I rode a bike all through my childhood, and rode to school regularly. When I started riding again as an adult, I had the necessary motor control skills to control my bike.

Lots of people who have taken up cycling in the last few years in London have obviously never cycled before5. Whilst it is great that people are taking up cycling for the first time, surely, if we want to encourage people to cycle, we should start with the kids? The benefits to society of a population that regularly cycles, in terms of improved health, lower energy costs and ‘greened’ environment must surely out-weigh any possible hazard.

Footnotes:

1 Seat Belt Laws — Repeal them?, published in Significance, June 2007.

2 Letter to Significance, December 2008

3 Motorists drive closer to cyclists on cycle lanes, CTC press release, 10 September 2009

4 Drivers overtaking bicyclists: Objective data on the effects of riding position, helmet use, vehicle type and apparent gender, published in Accident Analysis & Prevention, March 2007

5 Buffalo Bill’s totally unscientific and anecdotal personal observations.

Related posts on this website:

Department of Transport study exonerates 'lycra louts'
Police appeal for witnesses to fatal collision, 11th London cyclist killed
College of Emergency Medicine debate ends with call for compulsory helmets for child cyclists
'Psychiatrist' says bicycles kill more people than 'terrorism'
Collisions stats need careful interpretation, not banner headlines
7th London cyclist killed by lorry, 29th June
Safety in numbers, says Cyclists Touring Club
Not wearing a helmet could be 'contributory negligence'
Met Police Traffic Unit says 9 London cyclists killed by lorries in 2008
Written

  1. fuckd formatting on that…


    — lee    15 September 2009, 16:54    #
  2. You using IE?


    — Bill    15 September 2009, 18:00    #
  3. is same on firefarts


    — gland    15 September 2009, 18:43    #
  4. Oh something must have gone wrong with those blockquotes, I guess. I’ll have to fix it later, when I am not looking at the page with ztunnel.


    — Bill    15 September 2009, 19:32    #
  5. Wow. Formats fine in OS X. But looks terrible in MS.


    — Bill    16 September 2009, 13:43    #
  6. That’s better?


    — Bill    16 September 2009, 15:32    #
  7. Couldn’t agree more with your putative John Adams case. There’s nothing more indicative of a failure of planning than a pedestrian underpass.


    — Steff    17 September 2009, 23:42    #
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