Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Four words closer to the safety of life

In one of his more recent screeds against cycling, Jim Kenzie, the Star's car reviewer, wrote this chilling sentence: "We still kill more pedestrians and motorists on Toronto roads than we do cyclists."

We shouldn't kill anybody. I'll say that again: we shouldn't kill anyone. We should never accept death as a price for anything. Any violent death, any injury, in the course of any activity means that something went wrong and needs correction. When it comes to automotive technology, and the million odd deaths it causes world-wide, we need to do a lot of correcting. We need a safety culture.

The safety cultures I know best, marine and aviation, have four defining principles, summed up in four words: priority, transparency, authority, and accountability.

Start with priority, as in the safety of life has absolute priority. Nothing trumps the word unsafe. Not convenient, not fast, not efficient, not cost-effective. Having a deadline does not justify an unsafe act. Money does not justify a lack of safety.

In aviation and marine activities, that goes without saying. In a sane and decent road culture, it would go without saying as well. We do not need to pay road tolls in blood. Not only does trading a certain number of deaths for speed and convenience create a dire moral calculus: when we pay the price in lives, we don't get the convenience or the speed. If an aircraft cannot take of safely, it does not take off. That not only saves lives, it saves money and in the long run, it saves time as well. Yet somehow, a callous, or perhaps fatalistic attitude finds its way into our discussion of road safety.

We cannot make safety a meaningful priority without transparency, broadly defined. Transparency means first making transparent what has failed, then making that information widely available. It means not only the publication of information, but also the collection of that information. It means adequately investigating every loss of life incident, every personal injury accident. It means making public what happened, who died or suffered an injury, and who else the incident involved. Privacy should apply here only in very limited circumstances. What we do on the public roads we do in public, and by definition we cannot make claims of privacy for public actions. Nor should the authorities tasked with investigating incidents settle for an inadequate investigation to save money or to get the roads open quickly. In fact, to avoid compromising investigations in order to appease impatient drivers, the Highway Traffic Act should specify a minimum road closure for any accident that causes a death. Once the accident investigation team arrives, the clock starts; they have as much time as they need to gather evidence, but all the affected lanes and a buffer lane must remain closed for a minimum period.

Authority: in the marine and aviation safety cultures, the authority to do whatever it takes to ensure a safe flight or a safe voyage, rests with the person who has the most at stake and the greatest ability to assess any situation: the pilot in command of an aircraft or the commander of a vessel. In contrast, on our roads the state, primarily through the police, operates as a surrogate parent to drivers. This does not work. If drivers have no authority, neither law nor custom can really hold them accountable. Treating the nearest traffic police office as the actual commander in charge of each car simply relieves the person at the steering wheel and brake pedal of their responsibility. And whatever expertise traffic police officers bring to their work, they cannot possibly supervise all drivers. I propose simple addition to the highway traffic act: no peace officer shall issue, and the courts shall penalize no road user for failing to obey, any unsafe order.

That brings us to accountability. Pilots and mariners have the authority to operate safely, and both law and custom lays upon them an unconditional responsibility for doing so. To the excuse of ignorance, the safety culture replies: you had a responsibility to know. To the excuse of a mechanical failure, the safety culture replies that a pilot or captain has a responsibility to ensure the mechanical and structural integrity of the ship or aircraft in their care. Anyone who operates a two tonne steel bomb in public has an obligation to ensure the safety of their vehicle, to know or learn the relevant road conditions, and to conduct themselves in a safe manner. And a road crash truly arises from circumstances no reasonable preparation could have avoided, that usually changes the target of accountability. If the road design makes it impossible for any driver to operate safely, then the road design needs to change. In the case of a mechanical failure, the vehicle manufacturer has an obligation to correct the problem.

If faults go uncorrected, then dangerous vehicles have no place on the road, and the government should not register them. When accident investigations implicate infrastructure, then authorities responsible for that infrastructure have a responsibility to do whatever makes that infrastructure safe, whether that means changing the infrastructure itself, changing the conditions for using it, or even closing it to traffic altogether.

But most crashes happen because someone made a mistake, often a culpable mistake. Here the infrastructure and economy we have built around the automobile makes accountability difficult to enforce. The economics of motoring led successive governments to reduce the requirements for a driving license to a level nearly anyone could meet, while the design of cities and suburbs made use of a car necessary for daily life. A permanent revocation of a driving license, as well as a long suspension, appears to many as an extended house arrest.

Here again, aviation provides a model: the penalty for most safety errors in aviation consists of more training. I propose a back-end graduation on licensing: for most relatively minor offences, such as careless driving or careless driving causing injury, the license of the driver at fault should reset to the lowest level, and the driver should then have the burden of going through the training process again.

For more severe culpability, particularly dangerous driving causing injury or death, the law should provide a restricted license. A restricted driver would have the right to drive directly to the closest available medical facility with a sick or injured family member. For all other trips, whether shopping, commuting to work, or otherwise, the holder of a restricted license would have to get specific permission, providing the route, time, reason, and the reason public transit would not suffice for the trip. Such a license would rule out pleasure driving; it would also come with the same restriction on alcohol as a graduated license: drivers would be required to have no alcohol in their systems while operating a vehicle, period. This may seem harsh, but it strikes a middle way between prohibition on driving and full restoration of driving privileges.

We do not have to treat death on the roads the way we treat our mortality, as inevitable. We can have a safety culture, and a properly implemented safety culture does have the potential to reduce if not eliminate the carnage we see on our roads today.

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