Understanding traffic risk

I have a book by John Adams, entitled RISK, and it is all about … risk. *  One risk is driving with or without a seatbelt. Or helmet.

It is also about transferring risk, usually from one mode where something is being measured or there is political pressure to do something, or to be seen to be doing something, to another mode, preferably where no one is looking.

Classic examples include driver seatbelt laws that increased passenger deaths. In response, seat belt laws were extended to passengers, to increase their safety while carefully ignoring why the unsafe condition appeared.

And later discovering that protecting drivers and passengers increased deaths … to the kiddies in the back seat. So what does every good government do? You got it ! Mandate safety seats for kids.

Provincially we have those safety helmet laws for kids on bikes. Makes for good political press to be seen to be doing something.

If Queens Park really cared about our noggins, they’d have mandated helmets for car drivers and pedestrians and most beneficially of all required them for everyone walking up or down any flight of stairs, including at home. Those are the risky behaviours. But the easy score won out over good policy.

My favourite example of risk transfer here in Ottawa is our policy of forbidding wooden utility posts close to the curb at intersections because it is “too dangerous.”

To who? Why motorists of course.

Especially to fast, or out of control motorists.

So where do we instruct pedestrians to wait to cross the street?

So now you know that when it comes to wooden utility poles or pedestrians, which one is expendable and which ones are to be saved.

Similarly, all those nice bollards installed in Ottawa to keep motorists off expanded sidewalks are designed to break easily, so as to not injure … motorists. Or scratch their cars. The “protection” of sidewalk users doesn’t seem to matter.

I much prefer those hefty steel posts filled with concrete seen outside  LCBO stores. Now that tells you what the government really feels needs protecting.


real bollards on a corner means business, slows traffic, and protects peds. Look at the pic that heads up today’s story and decide which bollard works better: the 24″ post or the big tree. 

Adams has some great stories about how researchers and especially transport depts torture the data to fit preconceived notions of what is safe.

Of course, most readers are probably by now familiar with the notion that more signs on streets does nothing, because the design of the street itself has been borrowed from freeways and the push for longer sight lines and wider lanes just makes streets more dangerous. For kids, and the elderly, and adults, if not for drivers.


more technology, more signs will save us …

Our streets continue to be designed with the wider lanes approach, now larded onto the “complete streets” approach which distressingly (to me) seems to be morphing into the fat streets approach where we gotta have through lanes, turn lanes, bike lanes, pedestrian walkways, etc all of which make the whole street look and feel very wide … obscenely wide … and which I suspect induces traffic to go faster on complete streets than before.  I fear for Albert Street, Scott, and Richmond Road here on the west side.

Sometimes we call unexpected results, when observed and noted, a “paradox”. This kludge allows us to not change the prevailing rules for a while longer.

Eventually though, the old thought order is overturned in a scientific or not-so-scientific revolution, leading to the establishment of a new transportation planning paradigm.

A few years ago, there were numerous YouTube videos of a town in UK that narrowed the streets and installed a traffic circle. Initial results were positive, and I still see positive results cited in the media, perhaps because we want to believe them. But I’ve also seen “debunking” stories that challenge the success narrative.

So read the following link with a highly sceptical mind:


[oops, that link seems broken, but if you go a more current link:

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jun/10/londoners-police-residents-driving-community-roadwatch    you can see the window featured in the bottom right that takes you to the remove road markings article we want to read.


*Risk, by John Adams. You can get it, for a charge, through the library ILL from Memorial U in Newfoundland, or buy a copy used from Amazon.com. Or borrow it from someone.

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