The application of technology to road safety

Earlier this afternoon, as I drove home in the dark across Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire, it struck me just how many satellite navigation systems people are fitted in cars today (at least, I assume they were sat-nav devices, and that people were not just watching TV!). I don’t have sat-nav for two (three) reasons – I have a map book, I have a very good memory for remembering routes (and I was too tight to specify another £1200 options last time I ordered a car); however I do acknowledge that not everyone is a comfortable with their route planning capabilities and everyone I know with a Tom Tom raves about it.

My car tells me when I, or one of my passengers, isn’t wearing a seatbelt. It also turns on the wipers when the windscreen is wet. So, in general, I would say that applying technology to increase driver comfort and safety is a good thing.

It’s sad though, that technology hasn’t been used to detect when a driver needs to use their lights, or when there is a fault with a vehicle and it is unsafe to drive. On the same journey, the first hour of it was spent driving in fog (although visibility was still about 400 metres) – that meant that there was a mixture of people driving without lights (!) and people who thought they needed to use their rear fog lights even though I was right behind them and perfectly aware of their presence.

A few months back I had a rant about the replacement of real police by cameras in the name of road safety – my point being that a traffic policeman can exercise judgement over an issue that’s much broader than simply speeding, whereas a camera can’t. At the same time, I’ve seen a rise in unchecked vehicle defects. A few weeks back I followed a car for several miles which was belching out black noxious fumes. Today, I followed a car with only one working brake light which was directly above the rear fog light that was dazzling me. Later, a 7.5 tonne truck pulled out in front of me to overtake someone, and I saw the indicators on the side of the cab, but narrowly avoided a collision as his rear indicators didn’t work and it was all a bit too late.

Instead of all these gadgets, please can someone apply technology (or even people) to road safety – and I don’t just mean the politically correct issue of excess speed.

When mapping software doesn’t quite get it right…

I heard about this whilst watching the BBC Top Gear motoring programme last night and had to give it a go… The RAC‘s route planner on their website is a great tool, but try entering a route from Nottingham to Bideford, avoiding motorways, and the system will return a 1070.9 mile (1723.4km), 42 hour and 24 minute route via Ireland and France (at least until Map24 patch their software)!

RAC route from Nottingham to Bideford avoiding motorways

Strangely enough, if you enter the same route using the Map24 site it doesn’t seem to get lost in this way.

Music on the road – plug your iPod into your veedub via USB

Readers of this blog will be aware that I am a great fan of my iPod Mini (even if I do think Apple is a touch monopolistic in the digital media market). I also like Volkswagen cars. Last year my wife and I bought a Polo; I’ve had a few Golfs (one Mk II and a couple of Mk IVs); until recently I drove a 2004 Passat Estate 1.9TDI 130PS Highline (which I really liked); and I would love to own a 1960s Microbus (or even the 21st Century Microbus if it ever makes it to market).

My new employer’s car scheme doesn’t include Volkswagen so I have a Saab 9-3 SportWagon on order and as I mentioned in my recent post about the iPod Nano, it has a 3.5mm jack for connecting an MP3 player to the audio system which should come in very handy.

Now Volkswagen have gone one better and soon all of their new cars will offer a stereo system with iPod connectivity. Paul Thurrott reports that this will let “users manage the music on an iPod or other portable audio player through the stereo’s controls and display. The devices will plug into the car through a standard USB [connection], which virtually all MP3 players and portable storage devices use these days. Apple’s iPod is specifically supported with a special menu, but any USB-based device will work”.

Could this signal the death of the in-car CD-player?

Caught by the robot police (smile please – that’ll be 3 points and 60 quid)

Speed camera signI’ve just received a a conditional offer of fixed penalty from Dorset Police after I was detected exceeding the 70mph speed limit on a dual-carriageway near Poole. Me being caught speeding will come as no surprise to those who knew me in my youth, but for a while now I’ve had a clean licence so I’m a little bit annoyed as it was dry, sunny, almost 7pm, I was just 13mph over the limit (on a wide, fast road) and the position of the Dorset Safety Camera Partnership mobile camera unit might have been considered by some to be parked dangerously.

To those who say “there is a sure way to avoid a speeding fine – don’t break the speed limit”, I say “fair comment”; but I find it difficult to believe that there are any drivers out there who do not occasionally stray over the limit and the issue of road safety is much bigger than just speed. I’d like to use this post to highlight my views on how technology could and should be used to improve road safety in the UK.

I don’t want to turn this into a rant but in my research I’ve found that much of the information on the ‘net breaks down into four major areas:

  • Local authority/police “safety partnerships”.
  • Petrolheads who want to be able to drive as fast as they like.
  • Environmental campaigners who want to see speed limits reduced and alternative transport promoted.
  • Technical information about various types of speed detection and/or detection-evasion devices.

My arguments are that technology (remember, this is a technology blog) in the form of “safety” cameras is being used instead of sensible policing; and that technology should be used to drive through road safety schemes that are much broader in scope than the official “Think!” or “Speed Kills – Kill Your Speed” campaigns.

Here’s some of the background information and opinion:

“The number of fixed penalty fines issued in England and Wales has risen seven-fold from around 260,000 in 2000-2001 to 1.8 million in 2003-2004. Speed cameras are reportedly currently netting more than £20m a year profits for the Treasury. Motorists caught by the cameras have three points added to their licence and pay a £60 fixed penalty.”

[UK National Speed Camera Database]

Meanwhile:

“In the 1980s around 15% of police resources went into traffic duties – now that has been cut to 5%… We need more police on traffic duty not less – both to combat road casualties and to encourage better driving standards.”

[Professor David Begg, Chair of the Commission for Integrated Traffic, writing in Police (the newspaper of the Police Federation), March 2004]

“We are told that the speed cameras cut accidents. They are not about safety; they are all about revenue. We are required to cut road deaths by 50 per cent by 2010. With traffic officer numbers down by 2,500 this year, we have more chance of having tea with the Pope than achieving that result.

The public has become alienated from the police. The public supported ‘traffic cops’ even if they were wary, because they could see the value of our work. Speed cameras have made the police the enemy of the motorist, even if we have nothing to do with them. They are seen as the police making money.”

[Un-named police officers writing in Police (the newspaper of the Police Federation), March 2004]

My personal views almost entirely mirror this article on the Association of British Drivers (ABD) website – to quote:

“Firstly, let me make it very plain. I am not against cameras being used as part of a structured, multi-faceted and well thought-out strategy to reduce accidents. What I am against is their proliferation on open roads… and the intention to replace the former methods of traffic behaviour-monitoring and accident reduction with these inanimate eyesores.”

I broke the law by driving at 83mph in a 70mph limit; I’m not trying to justify that. I’d just like to tread the fine line between being “yet another petrolhead” and ending the current obsession with numerical speed – stressing that there is more to road safety than speed limits and traffic calming measures.

Think!Unfortunately, the official campaigns do not recognise that speed (alone) doesn’t kill. Bad driving kills and whilst speed may be a contributory factor in many cases, so is hesitancy, and so is complacency. Too few motorists think of a driving licence as a responsibility, or a car as a 1.5-tonne lump of heavy machinery and targeting speeding is easy, whereas driver education isn’t. Most of us pass a UK Driving Standards Agency test at 17 years of age and many drivers never receive any further training. Last week I heard a radio phone-in on the BBC Radio 2 Jeremy Vine program discussing a “3 strikes and you’re out” caveat on those who find it difficult to reach the required standard to pass the driving test – what I didn’t hear anyone say (and what I’d rather see) is that perhaps pressure should be brought on the government to introduce compulsory re-assessment of driving standards (for example, every 10 years), or even a local voluntary scheme to increase standards. I certainly found my company-sponsored Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) defensive driving course an excellent eye opener (although almost 9 years ago now) and have even paid for additional motorcycle training.

This month is the RAC Foundation, Auto Express magazine, the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) and BSM‘s National Motorway Month. Quoting from the RAC Foundation’s news release:

“In 2004, National Motorway Month covered the themes of tailgating, middle lane hogs, nervous drivers and driver fatigue. In 2005 the campaign will focus on:

  • Worst driving habits.
  • Causes of congestion.
  • Causes of accidents.
  • Standards of driving on motorways.

Key findings from the campaign last year were:

  • Over 40 per cent of motorists drive too close to the car in front on motorways.
  • One-third of lane capacity is being wasted at peak times due to poor lane discipline on the motorways.
  • More than 50 per cent of motorists habitually drive for more than two hours on long motorway journeys without taking a break.
  • More than one-third (ten million) drivers admit to regular feelings of anxiety when driving or considering driving on the motorways.”

Bad driving is not just a motorway problem. In my experience, driving across the country, at the start and end of the day schools often have parents’ cars illegally double-parked outside, seriously restricting visibility for children crossing the road (at one memorable location in Slough they were even parked with all four wheels on the pavement) whilst nobody checks the speed of nearby motorists (when even a perfectly legal 30mph may be an inappropriate speed). Meanwhile “safety camera vehicles” can be seen on a summer evening close to 70mph roads constructed only a few years ago (if these roads are dangerous at that time of the evening then they were poorly designed, or not wide enough!). It’s not just the public that drive badly either – most Police drivers today receive very little in the way of additional driver training and one of my friends often comments on the time I was forced to sound my horn to indicate my presence when cut up by a Police driver (non-emergency).

I live in a small market town, close to the county borders of Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes. Neighbouring Northamptonshire County Council has spent huge sums of money on road safety measures such as new refuges at junctions, but (along with many authorities) in 2004 it failed to grit major roads when winter weather was forecast – the result being rain freezing to ice followed by 4-5cm of snow the next day and traffic chaos.

One stretch of the A428 between Northampton and Bedford – one of Northamptonshire’s red routes – now has so many information and warning signs at some junctions that it could be considered difficult to take in all the information (even at well below the speed limit). Additionally, there is a SPECS system in place with no posted repeater speed limit signs (because the national speed limit is in place there is no legal need to display such signs), resulting in drivers slowing from a legal 60mph to as low as 30mph, but more typically 40-50mph); meanwhile last year the route was littered with signs encouraging drivers to slow down but which were so difficult to read with small lettering that they can actually cause accidents (e.g. “want to kill something – kill your speed”, “speeding fills hospital beds”, or signs detailing the number of casualties on the road in the last 3 years).

Sadly, many of the fatalities on this stretch of road occurred within days of some resurfacing work (and no warning signs of the new surface) a few years back – it is worrying to read that a type of surface for which safety has been called into question elsewhere in Europe is still routinely used in the UK.

At other locations there are the inconsistent signs and road markings that could cause confusion and accidents – for example last time I looked, the A43 between Northampton and M1 junction 15A had painted lane markings for the M1(N) which contradicted the overhead signs and a sign nearby which read “check your lane”!

Adding to this:

“Local roads are in their worst condition for 30 years, with consequences for traffic flow and safety.”

[UK Government Department for Transport]

So what’s the point of all this rambling? Basically, instead of the UK Government’s proposed national congestion charging scheme and the ever-rising use of “safety” cameras (coupled with reduced numbers of real police), I’d like to see technology used to good effect, increasing road safety through:

  • An increase in the use of variable speed limits on urban motorways, but only if the restrictions are cleared as soon as any danger has ended (e.g. fog has lifted, traffic levels have dropped), and possibly linked to higher limits on all motorways when visibility is good and traffic is light (analysis of European speed limits and accident rates shows no correlation between high speeds on motorways and increased levels of fatalities).
  • Engineering works to improve safety at dangerous junctions (e.g. grade-separated junctions replacing flat crossings on all trunk routes).
  • Assessment of information displayed on major road “matrix” signs every 15 minutes (so that out-of-date information is removed and up-to-date information is provided).
  • Removal of blatant revenue-raising “safety” cameras and redeployment to areas where they could have a real impact on saving lives.
  • A re-test for all drivers every 10 years, assessing their ability to cope with dangerous situations (e.g. using a simulator).

This application of technology to the problem should be supplemented with:

  • Reinstatement of real police, who understand what is bad driving and what isn’t, equipped with the necessary tools and training to carry out their job effectively.
  • Consistent application of speed limits across England and Wales with regular posting of repeater signs (even if the national speed limit is in place).
  • Consistent directional signing and road markings.
  • Removal of all distracting signage with small lettering.
  • Prompt and effective repairs to all roads where maintenance is required.

I’m conscious that I’ve linked many of the “petrolhead” articles in this post (as well as respectable organisations such as the RAC Foundation and the IAM); but in the interests of fairness and balance, I’d also like to highlight organisations with the opposite view:

  • The Slower Speed initiative is campaigning for a reduction in speed on our roads.
  • Transport 2000 campaign on a wide range of transport topics including lower speeds (interestingly they comment on the Association of British Drivers as “well known for hating speed cameras and, one assumes, anything that stops them going as fast as they like” – I have linked a couple of ABD articles in this post but can’t say I agree with everything on their website).
  • Brake – the road safety charity.

Finally, for a tongue in cheek look at driving standards in the UK today, I recommend that you check out Ian Everleigh’s New Highway Code.