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Non-scientific approach to road safety from medics and media as bad as anti-vaxxers

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Road safety should be viewed through the lens of ‘complex system science’ — medical professionals, Gardai and the media showing no apparent understanding of road safety research need to stop trying to simplify things to the point of victim blaming.

And, just to be clear here: Telling pedestrians, cyclists or scooter riders to go out and wear high-vis in the way that’s been done is nothing short of victim blaming which dismisses the mountain of peer-reviewed research which shows that road safety is more complicated than that.

Doctors claiming otherwise in the face of the mountains of research on the complexity of road safety are no better than anti-vaxxers or people who think modern medicine should be replaced with voodoo.

Why am I using such harsh terms here as comparing their actions to voodoo and anti-vaxxers? Because they aren’t listening to reason, I’m frustrated by that, and their focus non-scientific, victim-blaming focus has real-world effects.

I want an orthopaedic surgeon to fix my bones, but those quoted in newspapers yesterday at the launch of a “Be Safe Be Seen” campaign in Tullamore, Co Offaly don’t seem to be able to understand how a complex system works and thus where you focus on the most (hint: it’s not vulnerable road users).

For a long time, Ireland’s policy on road safety was viewed by campaigners and experts as behind many of our European counterparts, like the Dutch who have adopted ‘sustainable safety’ (sustainable in this context means systematic) or the Swedish who embraced the original meaning of ‘Vision Zero’.

This type of “Safe Systems Approach” is now enshrined in the Government’s Road Safety Strategy published last year. While not perfect, the policy is a huge step change. Engineering, enforcement and education need to be looked at.

But it’s blatantly clear that many medical professionals, senior Gardai and many others just don’t get it. Even the head of the Road Safety Authority (RSA) clearly doesn’t get it and he’s in charge of the agency which put the strategy together for the Government.

I feel like Dr Leonard McCoy, who, in the original Star Trek, repeatedly referred to 20th-century medicine as some kind of quackery from the dark ages. Sadly that’s where too many people (not just medics) in Ireland are in regard to road safety in Ireland — in the dark ages.

The Irish Independent reported that: “During the launch of a winter road safety campaign at Scoil Sheosaimh Naofa, in Tullamore on Friday, Deputy Commissioner McMahon urged pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists to take every precaution.”


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The reports from both the Irish Independent and the Irish Times and an editorial in the Irish Examiner are the stuff of dark ages — the quotes from medics, their victim-blaming focus, and the also the unquestioning media approach. The three articles amazingly are missing the words ‘driver’ or ‘motorist’.

A number of quotes seems to be very similar, making it likely that the quotes were taken from a press release. This means people should have been more considerate about what they said than if what they said were face-to-face with journalists.

There’s an increase in road deaths this year and the vast bulk of the deaths involved a driver. If we exclude the known single-vehicle collisions involving bicycle and scooter users, there’s still an increase in road deaths. So, by the end of the year, it’s highly likely motorists will have been involved with the deaths of sadly well over 130 people on Irish roads in 2022.

While writing this article it was confirmed that a person died in hospital after being hit by a motorcycle at Beresford Place.

We don’t know the details of the collision or the human behaviours involved on any side. But without knowing such, with a systematic approach to road safety, alarm bells ring about the design of Beresford Place.

It was reported by the newspapers that, on the issue of visibility, Deputy Garda Commissioner Anne Marie McMahon said that “so far in 2022, 25 pedestrians have been killed on Irish roads, the vast majority of whom were not wearing high visibility clothing or carrying a light.”

This is quite the example of victim blaming — how many of the 25 pedestrians were killed in day or night? How many in poor or good visibility conditions? How many examples even in poor visibility would high-vis or a light have changed?

Rather than victim blaming, the Deputy Garda Commissioner could look closer to home — such as the recently confirmed news that the number of Gardaí on road policing duty has declined by 5% in two years while accident deaths up 14%.

As bad or worse was the quote from orthopaedic consultant Dorothy Niall who “cannot overstate the dangers of wearing dark clothing”. She said: “The dark mornings and evenings are here for the winter, and unless pedestrians, joggers and cyclists are wearing high-vis jackets that shine brightly, they will simply not be seen.”

This is an outright lie.

People aren’t invisible because they aren’t wearing high-vis and there’s other visibility aids such as bicycle lights, street lights, head lights, motorists not looking at their phones, motorists watching out for vulnerable road users, and motorists slowing down (your field of vision narrows as you drive faster).

And who will not see them? Why are motorists being treated like they cannot be mentioned? Is it all part of the process of pretending their behaviour is not a key part of making our roads safer?

Prof Eoin Sheehan is quoted to have said: “Mechanised vehicles such as e-scooters have a weapon-like impact on the human body such is the force and impact involved. The lack of high-visibility clothing and helmets along with the speed of e-scooters is causing catastrophic injuries. Only this week, new research in the UK has shown e-scooter accidents have tripled between 2020 and 2021.”

There’s so much to unpack here — no road safety expert worth their salt calls incidents accidents any more, they are referred to as collisions or crashes. An accident implies there was no way to avoid the incident.

Mechanised vehicles such as e-scooters… and, are cars — like motorists — unnamable?

There’s nothing offered to support the claim that the high-visibility clothing and helmets are “causing catastrophic injuries” among e-scooter users, and no mention of any other common factors such as motorist behaviour or poor infrastructure. Such motorist behaviour includes failing to look or observe, which no amount of high-vis can fix.

And helmets of the type that can be safely worn by e-scooter users are bicycle helmets. In their BMJ article, Ben Goldacre, Wellcome, research fellow in epidemiology and author of Bad Science, and David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk argue that case-control studies which “suggest that, for individuals, helmets confer a benefit” are “vulnerable to many methodological shortcomings”.

Even if you think helmets and high-vis are highly effective, in a Safe Systems Approach, such personal protective equipment is not a main focus of improving road safety. Nobody is saying bicycles and scooters shouldn’t have lights or that pedestrians on unlit roads shouldn’t have a torch. But focusing mainly on vulnerable road users isn’t evidence-based and is unlikely to work.

A logical conclusion to the high-vis pushing is to at the very least make all jackets, coats, and hats high-vis.

But anytime I’ve ever asked people promoting high-vis if promoting it heavily) or making in mandatory) extend to car users the answer is always resoundingly a ‘no’. As if people getting out of their cars are never in danger. Should all cars by a bright colour? The most popular car colours are grey and black, but the answer given is also ‘no’. Anything for safety, except it seems affect car users.

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Cian Ginty
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2 comments

  1. Well said. I’ve been sick to the teeth for a long time now hearing doctors, firefighters and Gardai who are wholly unqualified in the topic, giving authority to unsubstantiated claims wrt road-safety and cycling. And not just unsubstantiated, but oftentimes offering forth opinions that have been shown to be completely wrong.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for this Cian. The view that it’s primarily on vulnerable and relatively powerless road users to ‘be seen’ rather than on powerful and protected road users to ‘see’ equates under 5kg of cloth and fibreglass with at least a ton of metal. But this is the essence of capitalism, isn’t it? Those already with power and shielded from the rest of society get the lion’s share of the rights. I think one of the reasons why giving more space to people who cycle is so frightening to many is because it goes against the dominant value system in our society.

    Reply

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