People (and street works) cause accidents

As the mob continues to bay for street works at the King’s Arms, we look at the real cause of urban accidents – people and thoughtless tinkering with road layouts.

We are still no clearer as to the cause of the accident at the King’s Arms junction in central Oxford in which a student cyclist was dragged under the wheels of a dust-cart and killed. The arguments continue as to what (if anything) should be done at the junction.

We have the usual cries of “something must be done”, generally from people whose ignorance of the circumstances matches their lack of logic and their inability to relate an effect to its cause. They would have major works done here with lots of signs, lines, barriers and lights. See the Oxford Inciter post A cyclist dies at the lights – no action required for an critique of this approach.

Even the Oxford Times, in its leader last week, called for “something akin to a speed-table with road markings to suggest that this is an area dominated by people on foot”. The paper acknowledges that stupidity may have something to do with accidents – “We do not condone cyclists going through red lights” it says – but ends by saying “a safety overhaul…has been talked about for a long time and it is about time something happened”.

This idea that longevity and reiteration somehow gives an idea legitimacy is not uncommon. A similar fallacy would have it that everything is curable by some notices, lines and “something akin to a speed-table”. Of course, the authorities must look again at this junction in the light of the accident, but their conclusion must be based on a logical analysis of the facts. Oxford Inciter is no fan of Oxfordshire Highways precisely because their usual reaction to a cry of “something must be done” is to get out and do….something, anything, to appease the mob and as a sort of totem to ward off the evil spirit of blame. Here, for once (so far anyway), they appear to done their analysis and concluded that there are no meaningful improvements to be made.

I drove across this junction from the south on Sunday, as it happens, shortly after watching a cyclist race across red lights at Frideswide Square. Mindful of that, the Highway Code and the Oxford Times’ helpful observation that “this is an area dominated by people on foot” (how would one manage without this sort of guidance?), I went very slowly. As I reached the middle of the cross-roads, a woman with a pram, nattering to her friend, stepped off the pavement by the New Bodleian and sauntered towards the King’s Arms.

This was not someone who was confused by the road layout, or making a dash between gaps in the traffic (there was almost no traffic). This was someone very stupid who did not think before stepping off a pavement into the road. She was halfway across before she gave a glance in my direction. Then she carried on sauntering.

I don’t particularly mind the fact that I had to wait while she sauntered – being in a car gave me no greater right to the road than she had, and I am more often a pedestrian than a driver in central Oxford. What I do mind is the fact that the blame (that is, the public disapprobation rather than any legal finding) would almost certainly have fallen on me if she had pushed her pram under my wheels, even though I was travelling at less than 10mph with the lights in my favour.

There is more to this than mere stupidity, though. The woman may anyway have lacked the ability to think for herself, but much of the street layout in Oxford is designed simultaneously to relieve people of the need to think and to give them too much to think about. Instinct no longer has a role.

Take Frideswide Square where I had just seen a cyclist jump the lights. This is a place where (as I have observed elsewhere) it is hard to tell whether the layout is the result of a deliberate decision to screw up the traffic flow or whether that result was just its inevitable consequence. The main features are too many signs, lines, lights and other complications to absorb safely, and an attempt at a pro-pedestrian bias which fails to meet that objective whilst adversely affecting traffic.

These things, the signs and the pedestrian bias, are no doubt laid down in the Idiot’s Guide to Road Layouts issued by the Department of Transport. The highways officers were probably able to tick every formal box as they designed Frideswide Square. Whether the sum of the parts actually worked in traffic terms was not their concern as long as they had complied with every directive. As Bagehot put it “It is an inevitable defect, that bureaucrats will care more for routine than for results”.

It does not work. The failure goes beyond mere obstruction and has three effects directly opposite to the intention of the directives so carefully obeyed.

One is that the very quantity of street furniture militates against comprehension – you do not need to stand there for long to see drivers setting off against the lights or in the wrong direction through genuine confusion.

Another is that frustration engenders recklessness – the delays artificially introduced by the road layout drives people to jump the lights.

The third is that every extra layer of cotton-wool makes people assume that “they” have taken care of all the risks of life. The dozy cow who stepped off the pavement in front of my car took it for granted that she would be looked after by the council.

Frideswide Square deserves its own critique. I raise it here simply as an example of how excessive works can actually cause danger when executed by people whose thinking apparatus is not equal to their intentions.

I had a third confirmation last week-end that people, rather than pre-destination or alleged council neglect, are the cause of accidents.

Driving home after mid-night, I was about to indicate before turning left off the Woodstock Road. I am a frequent checker of mirrors and the battered white Fiesta in the bus lane on my near-side must have been doing 80mph to have got there without being seen. It went past on the inside, braked hard at the Gatso and roared away again.

I don’t particularly mind the yoofs speeding as long as they don’t hit me or anyone else. If we could spare any policemen from all that vital paperwork, I would rather they caught the Fiesta’s occupants beating up passers-by on the pavements, as no doubt they had been doing earlier.

What I do mind is that if they had hit me, there would have been another statistic used to “prove” that Oxford’s streets are dangerous. The non-thinkers would have used it to argue that we should have more restrictions, speed limits, signs and lines. People who drive at 80mph up the Woodstock Road are not going to take much notice. The same is true of cyclists who race across the lights without looking.

The recent accident at the KA did not apparently involve speed by either party. Whatever is meant by the Oxford Times’ demand for “something akin to a speed table”, it sounds to me like an artificial obstruction calculated to add to rather than diminish the risks inherent in the junction – something else for the cyclists to focus on instead of the impending crash.

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About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
This entry was posted in Broad Street, Frideswide Square, King's Arms Junction, Oxford, Oxford cycling, Oxfordshire Highways, Signs and Notices, Street Clutter, Transport. Bookmark the permalink.

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