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Road safety debate needs bold approach


Civil engineers know more than anyone about how to stem the growing number of casualties on the UK's roads.

Yet we continue to find ourselves battling in a corner rather than leading the debate.

It is a debate which continues to gather pace. Rightly so - 10 deaths and over 100 injuries a day are frightening statistics, and in medical terms probably count as an epidemic.

Yet rather than lead a medical style investigation into this disaster, the civil engineering profession seems content to remain focused on peripheral issues such as whether or not to paint speed cameras yellow.

Certainly it is ideologically important to ensure that the police do not use these devices simply to catch out motorists and raise revenue. And it is of course necessary to ensure that these devices do actually make a contribution to road safety.

But civil engineers beware: the public wants better, safer transport and the government is looking for a 40% reduction in road deaths and injuries by 2010.

Both will be seeking someone to blame if these targets are not met.

Without doubt the lion's share of this blame will be reserved for our profession if we fail to make clear that we know what should be done. Or, for that matter, admit that we cannot do anything about it. For we all know that designing a road to be completely safe is impossible. We all know that if it wasn't for the drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, the roads would be totally safe.

So why therefore do we continue to persuade the public that a junction improvement here and a traffic calming scheme there will change everything for the better? Why do we continue to try to convince the public that we can design a road network that protects the vulnerable while affording a fast and efficient transport system?

News this week that a judge has ruled in favour of a motorcyclist who blamed the design of a roundabout slip-road for his latenight crash highlights the profession's growing dilemma.

In this case, although designed in accordance with accepted standards, the road layout was still described by the judge as a 'defective design' as the motorcyclist was unable to negotiate the sharp bend at 3040mph.

Meanwhile, all around the UK civil engineers continue to 'modify' carriageway alignments using artificial chicanes and speed cushions so that motorists cannot negotiate them (safely) above the 30-40mph speed limits.

Clearly there is a contradiction in what we are trying to achieve. A contradiction in the design philosophy that our profession either believes in or has been forced to subscribe to.

If we are going to help reduce road deaths, what we need now is honesty from the profession.

Honesty to stop trying to calm the uncalmable. Honesty to explain that enforced speed reduction alone is not the answer. Honesty to explain the conflict between traffic safety and car liberty.

Honesty to convince the public and politicians that without the introduction of quite draconian measures to separate pedestrians from cars, or cyclists from lorries, there is little that can realistically be done.

This debate is one that we can really influence with our characteristic good sense, balance and humanity. It is an opportunity for us to prove that we do not just solve problems with concrete, steel and asphalt.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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