Over the past few days we did a couple of thousand kilometres on our roads, ranging from the Hume Freeway to rural roads in Victoria. The traffic was orderly and not too fast. Yes, there was a hoon or two, including one who passed another car on the left side and at great speed, to everyone’s apprehension. But what I noticed more were simple errors. No crashes occurred, no one was harmed – yet that was luck rather than good management.
What sort of errors? Here’s a few: turning right without making a signal, passing the car in front without having a clear view of what was coming, deciding to pull over and stop without giving a signal, driving excessively close to the car in front, and wandering about at low speed, either lost, uncertain or talking to the passenger. I was the observer. Have I done those things myself? Almost certainly. I try not to. But I make driving errors too. Everyone does.
The amazing thing is that our system is quite forgiving. Sometimes when we make mistakes there is simply no one else there to be affected. When there are other vehicles, the drivers adjust to our mistakes, just as we adjust to those who make mistakes against us (the echo of a certain Prayer was unintentional, but I left it in). How many times do we exclaim about the idiot in front of us? How often are we aware that we have seemed like an idiot to those behind us?
I have had a role in the road safety business for nearly fifteen years now, and I have come to the view that the real problem on the roads is error. We are extraordinarily skilled as drivers, but we still make mistakes, and the key to road safety is how best to deal with mistakes. When I heard about ‘Vision Zero’ several years ago I thought it was the way forward, and have been plugging it ever since.
Swedish in origin, Vision Zero is a policy that seeks to eliminate deaths and serious injuries on the roads by ensuring that errors are forgiven. You can see it most obviously in the steel hawsers that are beginning to appear on our highways and major roads. They are there to prevent a head-on collision, or your falling off the edge of the road, should you or someone else have made a mistake. You can see it in the much better safety provisions built into modern cars, and in the growing importance of ANCAP ratings.
You can see it in the way we try to teach new, young drivers about how best to guide the missile that they are itching to get hold of. It is still true that the worst death rate is among young male drivers. It may always be true, because the urge to test limits, to express power, to live dangerously (because at 18 we are invulnerable) is greatest then. But we can still reduce the numbers.
My attention to my own errors started earlier than my move into road safety, when I became a vice-chancellor. ‘V-C Tops Ton’ was not a headline I could afford, let alone ‘V-C Way Over’, so my driving habits changed. It is much easier now I am not tied to meeting times. With their departure has gone impatience, and that leads to error. Because our cars become extensions of ourselves, if I am impatient then my car is an impatient car; if I am angry it becomes an angry car.
So I try to be courteous, in order that my car is transformed into a courteous car. It’s not always easy!