Background & Aims

Historically, the ‘Old View’ of road safety has been that the road transport system is essentially as safe as it can be made, and that with new technology, new rules, and new education systems it can be made safer yet. Accepting that, then the natural conclusion is that the roads are only made unsafe by the unreliable, unpredictable humans using it, and very specifically by just a few people who break the rules – a few ‘bad-apples’ who spoil the barrel. Fix the ‘bad-apple’ problem and you fix safety.

Is that an acceptable model of safety? The aviation industry believes not. Aviation safety expert Sidney Dekker says in his paper ‘The Reinvention of Human Error’ (1):
“…it is counterproductive to say what people failed to do or should have done, since none of that explains why people did what they did…

“People use their knowledge to pursue goals in practice, yet people’s knowledge is limited, their awareness is finite and multiple goals may compete for their attention. People’s behavior is rational, if possibly erroneous, when viewed from the inside of their situations, not from the outside and from hindsight. The point in learning about human error is not to find out where people went wrong. It is to find out why their assessments and actions made sense to them at the time, given how their situation looked from the inside. It is not to say what people failed to do. It is to understand why they did what they did, by probing the systematic, lawful connections between their assessments and actions, and the tools, tasks and environment that surrounded them.”

The vast majority of crashes are not the result of aberrant or erratic behaviour, nor the inherent unreliability of a few accident-prone people doing extraordinary things. Rather, the majority involve ordinary road users doing ordinary things. Crashes happen because of fundamental incompatibilities between how roads are designed to be used and the way people actually perceive, think, and act on those roads.

We can safely say those road users did not set out to crash. We can also deduce that the rider or driver about to make a poor decision leading to a crash is nearly always unaware that on this occasion they are about to put themselves into trouble – and this is a key point – because they have successfully completed the task many times before in what appears to be exactly the same situation.

Crashes are thus windows of opportunity to see into how the broader ‘road environment’ malfunctions. Pilot error might be the final act that actually crashes the plane. But the pilot did not deliberately crash the plane – his intent was to perform his job correctly. So just WHAT was the preceding decision that led to the faulty choice and just WHY did the chain of events LEAD to pilot error? If the road environment invites the road user to make a poor choice, then errors are not a cause of an event but a symptom of a much deeper problem within the system.

Individuals within the road safety industry question the effectiveness of existing interventions too. In his report on education in road safety for the RAC Foundation, Dr Frank McKenna (Professor of Psychology and a director of Perception and Performance) noted that:

“Educational interventions often are not sophisticated and are not based on any theory or on a formal body of knowledge. Designing an educational intervention with no guiding theory is like designing a medical intervention with no understanding of physiology.”

Too much road safety is retrospective. “What should have been done” is a judgment, made from an after-the-fact position that often makes unrealistic assumptions about the ability of people to conform to a rule-bound, normative ‘ideal driving’ model based firmly on hindsight.

For example, road junctions have long been a likely location for conflict between motorcycles and other vehicles violating the motorcyclist’s right of way. With hindsight, it may seem that it’s the driver who needs to be educated, coerced or punished; after all, if the driver committed the error that led to the collisions then that’s the intuitive solution.

And indeed for sixty years drivers have been told to look out for bikes; remember “Think Once, Think Twice, Think Bike”?

What about single vehicle crashes on corners, which account for a significant proportion of the killed and seriously injured statistics? Are the bikers riding into the crash badly prepared riders who also need to be educated or even ‘inherent risk takers’ who need to be coerced or punished to prevent them committing the error that led to the crash? Once again, hindsight makes it the intuitive solution.

So increasingly, powered two wheeler safety campaigns have also begun to focus on this issue with ‘thrills, not spills’ style catch-phrases.

What’s been achieved? The relative failure of these safety campaigns is self-evident; junction collisions still happen and still dominate crash statistics and riders are still falling off on corners.

The reason these campaigns haven’t eliminated junction collisions or corner crashes is because in all bar a few cases the drivers colliding with bikes and the riders falling off in bends are not ‘bad-apples’ but ordinary human beings who are making their decision based on their own version of hindsight – their experience tells them it’s the same manoeuvre they have successfully completed many times before. This time, the match with previous experience isn’t perfect. It’s often subtly different, but just different enough that this time things go wrong.

We believe that if significant inroads are to be made into motorcycle casualties, three things need to happen to allow a ‘New View’:

1) The road safety industry needs accept that road users’ assessments and actions made sense at the time, given the circumstances that surrounded them and move away from a safety culture that revolves around deterrent and punishment for making errors. Although these may temporarily eliminate what is seen by others as an undesirable behaviour, they can and do create anxiety, hostility and anger, as well as teaching the intended recipient to increasingly try to avoid the punishment (i.e., “not get caught”) rather than the avoid the behaviour it’s intended to deter.

2) The road safety industry needs a single, robust, unifying, easily stated theory that fits with scientific principles and incorporates fundamental knowledge from the fields of human factors, neuroscience, psychology and perception as well from established practice in the aviation industry.

3) Education need to focus on training motorcyclists to learn how ‘reverse engineer’ common crashes. As motorcyclists we need to understand how we make mistakes that lead to single vehicle crashes. We need to accept that “it takes two to tangle” dynamics in collisions involving two parties mean there are actions we can take to avoid being caught up in ‘the other fellow’s’ mistake.

4) Motorcyclists’ expectations need to be shifted away from the idea that “we’ll be safe if ‘THEY’ do the right things”, whether that’s other road users, highway designers or even the courts. We need to stop thinking that the system of roads and our interactions with other users on them should be be ‘fixed’ for us and harness the power of predictive riding to avoid being surprised by events we could have foreseen.

Where do we start this switch of perspective?

We believe firmly that rider training must move away from focussing on the ‘Perfect Ride’ to understanding how and why mistakes, miscalculations and errors of judgment occur. Whether on CBT, during training to pass the DVSA test or to take a higher advanced riding test riders are not systematically taught to understand and thus predict errors, whether their own or other road users’. They are rarely taught anything other than ‘best practice’ in the vain hope this will result in them avoid making their own errors.

This focus on the ‘Perfect Ride’ means we have limited understanding of human fallibility and this severely impacts our ability to make reliable decisions to avoid being caught up in errors whether of our own or of others’ making; faulty, incomplete, or imprecise data can only ever lead to ‘garbage in – garbage out’ when it comes to crash avoidance.

The ‘Perfect Ride’ idea that no-one should make mistakes also means motorcyclists have even less tolerance of human fallibility in others. Regardless of sixty years of campaigns to prevent the same type of collisions, many riders firmly adhere to the ‘Old View’ of rider safety, arguing that many collisions are the result of mistakes by ‘bad-apple’ road users whose behaviour puts us at risk. Even in 2014 rider groups are still campaigning along these very lines, and arguing that those drivers should be educated and punished into “taking more care” or “looking harder for bikes” rather than encouraging riders to look out for their own safety.

Fundamentally, we need to produce riders who can accept the road is not a perfect environment and that other road users are fallible. If we can increase the likelihood of a rider using predictive riding and identifying the predictable circumstances which are likely to result in human error by themselves or another road user, we reduce the chance they will be surprised, and increase they chance that they will be able to take avoiding or evasive action, because it’s surprises that precipitate unplanned responses.

This shift in perspective to a ‘New View’ of taking responsibility for our own safety will be undoubtedly be difficult to achieve. Simply stated our theory and our message is “No Surprise: No Accident”.

(1) The reinvention of Human Error Dekker, Sidney 2001 Ashgate Human Factors and Aerospace Safety, Vol. 1(3), pp. 247-266
(2) Education in Road Safety – Are we getting it right? McKenna, Frank 2010 The RAC Foundation Report Number: 10/113, p2