It probably won’t come as much of a surprise that autonomous vehicle technology was a theme that came up repeatedly at the recent Parliamentary Advisory Committee for Transport Safety (PACTS) ‘Streel Legal’ conference on 28 March. Over the last couple of years, it seems like almost every day has brought with it a new headline about vehicle technology in general, often centring on the latest developments in driverless cars. This theme was pretty poignant given the timing of the conference. Just a few days before, the world heard about the death of a pedestrian who was killed when she was hit by an Uber vehicle during a trial of its autonomous technology, adding fuel to the debate about the safety of driverless cars.
We are already in the early stages of transitioning over to a world in which humans and ‘robot drivers’ take to the roads alongside one another, and PACTS and the bodies they consult with are examining the multitude of strands to this bizarre and complicated relationship. How will we decide who is at fault in a collision between a human and a robot driver? If robots are designed to follow the rules, then maybe the human must always be to blame? Will the robots even follow the rules? Will they know how to avoid a pothole? The speakers at the conference represented government, the police and their partner agencies, the insurance industry and those with responsibility for the road network, and all have an interest in these kinds of questions as well as a role to play in answering them. What is quite comforting is that the discussions are still taking place very much in human terms, and with fully autonomous cars still quite a long way off, the concepts of personal safety, responsibility, courtesy and choice are still paramount.
The human element means that there is an ongoing need for enforcement of road traffic laws. As pointed out by Geoff Collins of ITS Enforcement Group, technology is an essential part of the detection of speeding and other offences, but we are still attempting to influence human driver behaviour. The simple application of harsh penalties is seen as too much of a punishment ‘stick’, often provoking resentment rather than reflection. This is why enforcement also involves a ‘carrot’ in the form of more encouragement of good behaviour, such as warning letters and the opportunity to receive more education rather than just a penalty that may not give the driver a strong enough reason not to reoffend.
This is certainly at the core of our thinking at IAM RoadSmart, where the human elements of drivers’ attitudes and behaviours are always the focus for development in the interests of road safety. Martin Surl, Police and Crime Commissioner for Gloucestershire, summed things up well when he referred to driving as being a ‘social activity’; the road network being a public space in which we go about our lives and interact with each other. I believe that’s how it is still seen by the majority of drivers, and most share the desire to rid the roads of anti-social driving. As humans, we sometimes make errors of judgement or poor decisions, and having a frank conversation about the dangers can be more effective than the ‘robotic’ process of getting snapped by a camera and having points applied to your licence.
I was eager to find out the long-awaited results of the latest research on the measurable effectiveness of speed awareness courses commissioned by the Department for Transport and carried out by IPSOS MORI due to be announced at the PACTS conference. Unfortunately, their representative couldn’t attend, so you’ll have to watch this space for an update. In any case, as the UK’s largest provider of drink-driver rehabilitation courses, we have received immensely positive feedback about the changes that our courses have helped offenders make in their lives, and consequently we have a firm belief in the power of driver education. As a charity, our primary aim is to reduce the numbers of those killed and seriously injured on our roads, and we intend to broaden this effort by partnering with police forces wherever possible to provide other kinds of driver awareness courses, ensuring that enforcement continues to recognise its human significance.
By Alan Prosser, IAM RoadSmart's head of retraining