Sunday, 5 April 2009

Shared Safety or Shared Danger

I’ve been ruminating on writing an article about ‘shared spaces’ for a little while now. It’s a subject I’m personally very interested in, but also seems to be a current hot topic in the press. At some point in the future the fruits of my musings may appear on here, but in the meantime I’ve been doing a bit research into the thinking behind it and have found some interesting related ideas.

For those unfamiliar with the term and without getting too bogged down in it, ‘shared space’ is an approach to the design of roads and streets where the traditional separation between pedestrians and vehicles is removed or eroded, to create a space where all users co-exist. This generally involves the removal or lowering of kerbs, reducing signage and the associated roadway paraphernalia, and the merging of footways and carriageways with the aim of improving road safety by forcing drivers to reduce speed and have due consideration for other road users.

The approach was originally developed by Hans Monderman, a highway engineer working in the Netherlands, but has since been applied to schemes worldwide. According to the Gospel of Wikipedia however, it was British shared space enthusiast, Ben Hamilton-Bailey who first used the term ‘shared space’ to describe Monderman’s approach (note that Ben Hamilton-Baillie’s Wikipedia article was written by a B. Hamilton-Baillie). In the UK, shared space concepts have been promoted by a number of sources, but perhaps most influentially in ‘Manual for Streets’; a guidance document for the design of roads and streets, prepared in partnership by the Department for Transport and the Department of communities and Local Government. The aim of Manual for Streets, of which I’m a big fan by the way, is to try and promote the role of roads in place making and improving their environment, rather than looking solely at issues of vehicular transit and pedestrian safety.

However, not everyone seems so enamoured by current developments and there has been a significant amount of negative press coverage of some recent shared space schemes. This seems to stem from broadly two sources; organisations that represent the blind and partially sighted, and then the doomsayers who read the Daily Express and write to Ester Rantzen to complain that someone will surely be killed! Now without going into all the in’s and out’s of the arguments, I’d say that there clearly is an issue with guide dogs not being able to negotiate roads without kerbs (although there is little recognition of the potential benefits of this to those with limited mobility), but the rest…

It was actually Ben Hamilton-Bailey’s website, which first made me aware of Warwick Cairn’s excellent book, “How to Live Dangerously”. First and foremost it’s a very entertaining read, but it actually makes some pretty serious points about our compensation culture and the paradoxes of public safety. Interestingly, it both references Monderman’s work on shared space, but also gives some background on the thinking behind it and I think offers an interesting perspective on many issues in today’s society.

To those that are interested by the subject, I’d recommend getting hold of a copy, as it's a nice light read (see link below). For those of such an inclination, I suspect it would prove good toilet reading …

Rather cheekily, I thought I’d drop a few quotes from the books chapter “ The Safety of Danger”, in below.

“Where this is all leading is to one of the most important theories of how human beings deal with danger and risk, and why. It’s a theory that has very important and far-reaching implications, as we’ll see a little later. The theory goes by a number of names, including ‘risk homeostasis theory’ and ‘risk compensation theory’, but you may prefer to think of it as just plain common sense.

Here’s what the theory says: all of us have a natural or ‘ideal’ level of risk that we feel comfortable with in our lives... When things become more dangerous than we like, we take more precautions – when the roads are icy, for example. And – here’s the important part – when things become noticeably safer, we feel that it’s all right to take a few more risks.

So, strange as it may seem, and mad as it may seem, and hard to believe as it may seem, the safest course of action, much of the time, is the one that appears, on the face of it, the most dangerous.

In 1989, the year that UK law first required children in the rear seats of cars to wear seat belts, the number of children killed and injured in rear seats didn’t go down at all. It didn’t even stay the same. What it did was it actually increased. Significantly. The reason for this was that people felt their children were now properly protected, so they didn’t have to worry so much, and so they could afford to drive faster and more recklessly.

And when, for example, we make children’s playgrounds less dangerous by replacing tarmac with special spongy rubber stuff, and when we take away the big tall slides and climbing frames, and when we prevent children from playing conkers unless they wear protective goggles, what we are doing is not actually making them any safer: we are just making life duller, and challenging children’s ingenuity to come up with ways of experiencing the same level of thrills that the old playgrounds used to give them, and that the old unstructured play used to give them. Which may mean using playgrounds in ways for which they were never intended – as places to vandalize and spray graffiti on, for example, which carries the risk of being chased by an irate adult – or not using them at all but going somewhere else altogether – a derelict building, say, or a railway line you can run across as a train approaches; and getting your thrills there instead.

In the 1990s a committee of scientists, psychologists and health-and-safety experts from sixteen countries gathered to examine the evidence for this theory, to see whether more safety precautions actually protect people, or whether they just make them feel safe and confident enough to take bigger risks. Their verdict was unanimous and unequivocal: ‘It is clear,’ they said, ‘that confidence in safety devices – whether they be helmets, seat belts, safety ropes for climbers, or safety nets for trapeze artists – affects behaviour. People respond in a way that tends to nullify the intended effect of the device. Safety measures that ignore this tendency almost always disappoint their promoters.’

And here’s the point: if it isn’t so much things themselves that cause accidents as people’s willingness to take risks, then making things safer won’t mean there will be fewer accidents. It just means that there will be different ones.
The only real way to make people safer, the only real way to cut the rate of accidents in one place without it leading to more accidents happening somewhere else, is to lower people’s willingness to take the particular risk that you have in mind. Which is to say, it is to make that risk more frightening. Or, to put it another way, the most effective way to make a thing safer is to make it more dangerous.”

While it seems a fairly contentious premise, if not counter-intuitive, as Cairn intimates there has been some serious research to back up these opinions. Professor Gerald Wilde of Queen’s University, Ontario coined the term, “risk homeostasis” to describe how human behaviour offsets external improvements in safety, by behaving less safely. While not universally accepted, much of the criticism of his work, seems to originate from those who have a vested interest in promoting the value of safety equipment.

All of which makes an interesting response to those who seek to sanitise, standardise and safety-fy everything around us. It rather sadly seems to me that personal responsibility has been largely forgotten in Britain today.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting observations, thanks. I've been involved in a project for about 1 year to try to make our campus safer for pedestrians. We are trying to focus on environmental changes to influence pedestrian behavior. We need to consider the concepts you've identified.