Managing transport risks: what works?

I have been invited to contribute a chapter to a book called Risk Theory Handbook to be published by Springer. Publication is scheduled for a year from now, so there is still time to make changes/corrections/improvements. Comments are welcomed. Here is the abstract.


What does a transport safety regulator have in common with a shaman conducting a rain dance? They both have an inflated opinion of the effectiveness of their interventions in the functioning of the complex interactive systems they purport to influence or control. There is however a significant difference. The clouds are indifferent to the antics of the shaman and his followers. But people react to the edicts of a regulator and frequently not in the way the regulator intends. There are two different kinds of manager involved in the management of transport risks: there are the “official”, institutional, risk managers who strive incessantly to make the systems for which they are responsible safer, and there are the billions of individual fallible human users of the systems, each balancing the rewards of risk against the potential accident risks associated with their behaviour. Conventional road safety measures rest on a model of human behavior that assumes that road users are stupid, obedient automatons who are unresponsive to perceived changes in risk and who need protecting, by law, from their own and others’ stupidity. The idea of risk compensation underpins an alternative model of human behavior: that road users are intelligent, vigilant, responsive to evidence of safety and danger and, given the right signals and incentives, considerate.

The full paper can be found here.


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  1. Alexander Harvey says:

    “Inappropriate speed”

    I think that there is something to be learned from Motor Racing, perhaps by doing, not watching.

    In a sense it is all about “appropriate speed”, how it is achieved and the management process involved.

    In circuit racing, the appropriate speed is that which obtains the goal of getting from A to A in the shortest possible time. I would say that the principal ongoing mental task is the mangement of capacity, not of risk. Continually making judgements regarding the capacity of vehicle and driver, both ones own and that of others.

    I would say that risk is dealt with separately. Most precautions are “no brainers” and enforced by rules. Multipoint harnesses, crash helmets, protective clothing, sensible footwear, rollover protection, fall in this category. Driving in a formula appropriate to ones capacity and deciding to take part at all, or at a particular track, or in particular conditions, are personal risk assesments. Notably all of these take place prior to starting the engine. I would say that once the race is on, managing risk in any meaningful sense would constitute a distraction and a drain on resourses resulting in a reduction in capacity, and hence increased likelihood of mishap.

    You wrote:

    “Most climbers on Mount Everest and K2 know that it is dangerous and willingly take the risk. Similarly thrill-seeking young men driving recklessly are aware that what they are doing is dangerous; that is the point.”

    Your first sentence I would think is true, but “potentially dangerous” might be better. I am not sure about the second, Leaving boy racers to one side, I do doubt it is true of motor racing, where the point is winning not endangerment. I think that the “adrenaline” tag often applied makes little or no sense. If one were to have an genuine adrenaline rush one would likely fall off at the next corner, for instance scaring oneself results in a reduction of capacity, I do sometimes wonder how many road accidents are preceeded by near misses. As a personal observation, racing drivers apres shunt, are often more disappointed than shaken up, they are neither scared nor shocked easily, the prime motivation is to get going again.

    I suspect a key difference between “boy racing” and “motor racing” lies in the managent of capacity, not of risk. I suspect that ongoing risk assessment plays little role in either activity but I suspect that the ongong mangement of capacity differs markedly between the two groups. They can also be separated by their degree of empathic processing. Both groups may be wildly unsympathetic but the ability to sense the intentions, motives, and capabilities of others and how one can use that insight to predict or even control their actions is definitely part of motor racing.

    You mention the subject of ABS. Although now much improved, in its early days it underperformed in terms of ultimate stopping performance and in terms of car control, as compared to what a skilled driver was capable of. I am not in the most skilled category but it still gave me the willies; a sicken feeling of being no longer able to control a vehicle that had a mind of its own in the braking department. I really must expect that it was widely perceived as an increase in car performance whereas it was designed to overide poor driving skills but could not be marketed as such. If it had been sold more honestly, the implication that you, the driver, lack the capacity to drive the vehicle adequately ought to have been an incentive to drive more slowly. This is to be contrasted to the adoption of disc brakes which were a step change in improved braking performance, the only draw back being the car behind still having drum brakes. Similarly the fitting of air brakes to lorries giving some better deceleration than some cars of the day.

    In your section “Filters”, you come close to my point of view but I still doubt the reduction you make. Mine may be a very narrow view but I don’t think so. It is that if people make judgements on anything it is in the spare capacity available to them. Alterations whether they be in vehicle design, road layout, or education, tend to reduce accidents when they increase the spare capacity in the vehicle/driver, cycle/rider, pedestrian combinations. So I would view the effectiveness of “shared space” to be determined by its effect on spare capacity. In that case individual schemes could jump either way. If the effect it to reduce driver capacity due to an increasing workload that is not compensated for by a change in driving style, most likely slowing down, the driver could be over stretched and more prone to mishap.

    Compared to cars and lorries, the behaviour of pedestrians and cyclists is non-Newtonian, predicting what they are going to do next adds greatly to driver workload, at least I hope it does. If this can be compensated for in some way, e.g. more appropriate signage, measures to minimise the feeling of being lost or confused, making road calming measures indicative of the hazard rather than co-locating them, etc..

    FWIW many years ago I was trained to compete in racing cars, I was never going to be fast enough to get someone else to pay for it and I could not afford to race privately. It was a matter of “inappropriate speed”, mine being a little to slow.


  2. Max Headroom says:

    “The decrease in child road accidents appears to be overwhelmingly attributable to a decrease in exposure, and the decrease in exposure attributable not to institutional edict but to a growing fear on the part of parents of the threat posed to their children by traffic.”

    Traffic is NOT the reason that parents do not let their children out unaccompanied.

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