We Are Human – Over the last ten years I have been involved in road safety research. In the last 5 years I have had the fortune of working with professional road collision investigators who kindly gave me access to their case files of road traffic fatalities in Northern Ireland. Overall, I studied around 150 fatalities, broken down into three groups: Motorcyclists, Pedestrians and Vehicle Occupants (the latter referring mainly to car drivers and passengers).
What interested me was the way that in each case it was not a specific issue that caused the death of the “victim” but there were always a series of events which all contributed to the outcome of the collision and subsequent death of the person on which each investigation focussed.
However at the end of these studies and in particular the last study on vehicle occupants, I came to the conclusion that there is a very important element of research that the road safety sector seems to either ignore or pretend that it does not exist – or rather uses differing definitions to cover up what is – in my mind anyway – a fundamental reason for the elevated numbers of people killed on our roads – and that is simply stupidity.
Reading through some of the cases, the level of irresponsibility – or stupidity – of people who died – or others who were killed as a consequence, was breath-taking.
For example, of the 51 vehicle occupants (i.e. drivers, passengers, drivers/passengers of other vehicles) killed between 2011 and 2012:
35.3% (n.18) of those deceased was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the collision.
In n.18/48 cases, evidence of alcohol or drugs was found in the blood of the driver responsible for the collision.
In n.8/15 cases where the driver was aged between 17 and 25 years, the driver had consumed alcohol over the legal limit, ranging from 97mg per 100 ml to approx. 280mg per 100 ml.
In four of these cases, evidence of drugs e.g. cocaine, cannabis or Diazepam were found in the driver’s blood.
In one case evidence of the anti-depressant drug Citalopram was found. In total n.11/15 (73%) of young drivers had consumed alcohol and/or drugs.
In the case of pedestrians, of the 55 cases (which occurred between 2008 and 2012) analysed:
- In n.30 (55%) of cases the pedestrians wore dark clothing. The majority of collisions occurred in darkness n.35 (64%).
- In n.5 cases, the elderly pedestrians (n.2 females and n.3 males) crossed the road in front of a lorry.
- There were n.17/55 pedestrians (31%) who were found to have alcohol in their blood at the time of the collision. All n.17 cases occurred during the hours of darkness. The average Blood Alcohol Content was 232 mg per 100 ml.
You have to ask yourselves, what possesses people to venture out on roads and expect to return alive when they (for example) drink to the point of being incoherent, walk on country roads with dark clothes on, drive while drunk or on drugs? Is that not stupidity?
In any event, the youngest pedestrian with alcohol found in his blood was 17 years old and the oldest, a male over 70 years. However in all cases where the collision occurred very late at night or early morning, the age ranged from 17 to 45, (n.10 cases). All other cases when the collision occurred between late afternoon and 9 p.m. the age was 50+ (n.7 cases). There was only one female pedestrian with alcohol found in her blood (223 mg per 100 ml). In n.11 cases the collision occurred on a rural road. All cases occurred during the hours of darkness. None of the n.17 intoxicated pedestrians were wearing reflective clothing.
Yoof (Youth) and Cars
In the Vehicle Occupant study, in n.29/48 cases, the driver responsible for the collision died as a result of injuries received. The highest proportion of drivers killed was between the age of 17 and 25 years (31%). Furthermore in n.18/49 fatalities (37%) the age of the driver was between 17 to 25 years in all cases they were driving cars. Is it the case that young people are more reckless, irresponsible – or simply plain stupid?
It’s an interesting dilemma- these figures are pretty much representative of a larger problem in the UK (and possibly Australia?) – whereby young drivers are far more likely to kill or be killed. You could argue that the level of training for young drivers is woefully inadequate – this is due to the fact that learner drivers are taught to pass the test rather than to learn how to drive. So perhaps stupid should apply to those who set the exams for learner drivers?
In the case of the elderly – heaven forbid we target the aged as stupid, however, you have to ask the question – surely when people get to a certain age they should be wiser when it comes to their own personal safety? While I accept there is a big element of visual impairment, in the pedestrian study, in n.5 cases, the elderly pedestrians (n.2 females and n.3 males) crossed the road in front of a lorry.
Three walked out onto a pedestrian crossing when the traffic lights were red (for pedestrians); one was near a pedestrian crossing but walked in front of the lorry from behind another vehicle, while one male crossed in front of the lorry in heavy traffic. Another elderly male pedestrian who was wearing dark clothing was walking on a rural road in darkness and was stuck from behind. The lorry driver was unable to discern the pedestrian due to glare from the lights of oncoming vehicles.
How many times have any of you out there crossed the lights (as a pedestrian) when they are red? Truthfully! I bet the overwhelming majority have. Is this because we are fundamentally stupid or simply arrogant or – are we just unaware of our own vulnerability?
Those Pesky Bikers
The analysis of 41 motorcyclist fatalities (39 cases) between 2004 and 2010 was quite revealing. Proportionately there were fewer motorcyclists who died as a result of speed or alcohol, however that does not mean that there weren’t irresponsible riders amongst the case files. Worth considering was that this study looked at seven years of case files.
There are four recorded cases in which the motorcyclists had levels of alcohol over the legal limit and or drugs in their blood. In Northern Ireland the maximum legal alcohol limit for driving is 80 mg per 100 mls. In three cases the alcohol content was more than two times over the legal limit. In one case the motorcyclist had also taken nerve suppressant drugs and possibly cannabis. In another case the motorcyclist also had ecstasy in his blood. Three of these collisions were single vehicle (no other vehicle involved) and the fourth ran a red light through an intersection with no headlights on and impacted a car crossing the intersection.
With regards speed, of the 39 cases, there were four in which evidence of speed above the national legal limit was recorded. In one case the speed of two motorcycles involved was above the national legal speed limit (>130 mph) and the motorcyclists were unable to stop in time when a truck exited from a quarry. According to the investigator, had the motorcycles been travelling at the national speed limit and had they begun braking at the location of the start of the long tyre mark, the collision would have been avoided.
Furthermore travelling at a constant speed of 60 mph, it would have taken approx. 5.2 seconds for the motorcycles to travel from the start of the tyre mark to the impact area (139 metres). This would have given sufficient time for the truck to move away from the quarry entrance and clear the west bound lane. In this scenario, the collision could have been avoided without any brake application by the motorcyclists. As an aside, the mohican which was pasted onto the helmet of one of the riders was found stuck to the rear axle of the tipper truck.
In the three remaining cases, the speed was higher than the national legal limit and in each case a vehicle pulled out from a minor road in front of the motorcycles. However, the actions of the other vehicle driver pulling out in front of the motorcycles were the primary cause of the collision, not the speed of the motorcycle. With regards to the actions of the motorcyclist, due to the speed of the motorcycle, the rider was restricted in his ability to brake sufficiently in time prior to impact. In other words, the speed limits are there for a reason. Yet drivers and riders continue to ignore them at their peril.
What seems evident is the dangerous direction in which road safety is heading – where the human element is becoming less and less relevant in the search for Vision Zero – i.e. no road deaths at all. Driverless cars, ITS to resolve all road casualty problems – I am of the opinion that it is not going to happen and this is simply because – we are human.
My question – should the “Stupid Factor” become an integral part of any road safety analysis?
More information about these three studies can be found here:
Elaine Hardy PhD
* The photograph used to illustrate this article is not related in the slightest way to the article , other than the fact that it is a road with two people walking down the middle. But I like it and I just love Charlie Chaplin.