Rules are rules

Blog post posted on 03/08/17 |

Every year IAM RoadSmart comments on the annual casualty statistics when they are published (usually in June), being pleased when the numbers fall and concerned when they stagnate. This year the publication has been delayed until the full tables are published in the autumn. That makes me suspect the news is not good, but that’s just speculation.

That pair of sentences contains an assumption – it does not mention that the numbers might actually rise. We assume they will fall, we assume that it is what should happen, that continuing decline is what everyone wants and expects, and what should happen.  That’s all good, I think, but it is also easy to ignore the implications of it.

Back when the casualty figures were far higher than now, despite far lower traffic flows and mileages, it was relatively easy to make a difference. The introduction of the breathalyser, the national speed limit, compulsory crash helmet wearing, then later compulsory seat belt wearing …over a period of a couple of decades huge inroads where possible into the numbers, by relatively simple to implement methods.

But as time has gone on, and the numbers have shrunk markedly, it has become steadily more difficult to implement measures that make a big difference. There is no surprise to this, really.  Some people call it the 80:20 rule – 80 percent of the result is achieved with 20 per cent of the effort, the last 20 per cent of the result takes the other 80 percent of the effort.  When I studied economics, I was taught about the “Law of Diminishing Returns” – effectively the same thing.  As the toothpaste tube gets emptier it gets much harder to get the paste out – and the last little bit is really difficult.

One of the ways this shows in road safety is with increasing lack of tolerance around “the rules.”  Increasing levels of prosecution for offences that might previously have been ignored, or dealt with at the roadside by a policeman’s “advice” to an errant driver or rider.   Another effect is a desire to increase the level of restriction applied to all, in order to control the behaviour of a few – lowering speed limits would be an easy example to explain this.

As casualty figures fall (hopefully) the restrictions need to bite deeper to control those whose behaviour is not yet being managed adequately.  So more people who are already “behaving” become more controlled more strictly to manage the behaviour of fewer people who are not “behaving.”  It’s an interesting dynamic.

With public finances limited and not likely to be suddenly freed up, governments are inclined to increase penalties and bring in more laws, rather than the more expensive option of enforcing more accurately and targeting those who are likely to make the errors in judgement that generate casualties on the road. 

Self-financing enforcement is deeply untrusted (just read the comments or listen to the conversations in pubs about parking enforcement) by those subject to it. Technology may have some answers – but how do we manage to control “errant behaviour” without generating overly heavy restrictions on those who already behave well?  How do we find ways to manage behaviour to create a decline of casualties without either the additional rules creating more restrictions, and enforcement of them and those already in place being too severe to be acceptable?

Peter Rodger, IAM RoadSmart’s head of driving advice