Ten percent of nothing is still nothing

A good few months ago, a friend parroted the line I’ve heard often from places like SafeSpeed, but was surprised to hear it from him. This particular argument normally runs as follows: car drivers do a lot of driving; they have experience of driving at all sorts of speeds; they are therefore the best judges of what constitutes a safe speed for a given road.

This suggestion always catches me off guard, because I never know which bit of it is the most stupid or ill-informed. Breathing a lot doesn’t make me a pulmonary consultant, although if everyone on the roads were only there because they had studied collision theory, materials engineering and health and safety, then I dare say there might be something in the original suggestion: most people wouldn’t be on the roads, and the people on it would be experts in moving vehicles, both of which occurrences would make everyone safer. As it is, there’s nothing stopping the driver in front of you from being an ill-trained thickwit with no real concept of safety. But, more than any other objection against it, experience implies almost without doubt that the idea is nonsense.

Let’s take as our first assumption that judging speed is far harder than judging distance. There are psychological and behavioural reasons (and experimental studies and justifications) for assuming this, but as an example: try picking up a plate; now try catching a frisbee. We can therefore turn to the average car driver’s ability to determine distances on the road; then, once we’ve decided how capable drivers are at performing this elementary task, we can wave our hands a bit and extrapolate with meagre justification and disregard for basic statistical devices. I learnt that one off Paul Smith, the fucking moron.

On the road between Witney and Charlbury, I’m passed by a number of drivers every morning. Now, anyone who’s travelled on the roads as a non-pedestrian and non-passenger ought to know: vulnerable road users such as bicycles and horses should be given at least as much space as a small car. Also, when overtaking something moving, don’t assume it’s stationary, and make sure there is enough space ahead of you on the other side of the road for you to overtake and pull back in, in good time. I’d say, when forced to make the decision, around 10% of drivers are able to err on the side of caution; the other 90% rely on unsafe margins and their own luck, or other drivers accounting for their stupidity. Luckily, the Highway Code is sufficiently robust that several people need to ignore it, or one person ignore it for long enough, before someone involved has an accident.

My second observation is that of turning right into junctions. Now, we’ll leave aside the fact that at any given junction on this road less than 30% of drivers actually indicate, and concentrate on a driver’s ability to judge both distance and speed accurately enough to end up getting into the minor road without endangering oncoming traffic in said road. At this point, we also ignore the drivers who overtake me while I’m turning right, ending up entirely (and wilfully) on the wrong side of the road: three times a week? But I digress.

Of the number of drivers I see attempting this elementary manoeuver, perhaps five percent manage it. Five percent. One driver in every twenty is able to turn right into a junction, not cut the corner and hence end up on the correct side of the road.

I think you can see where this is heading. Even assuming that the same five percent are capable of turning into a junction and judging overtaking distances, that means that nineteen out of every twenty people are incapable of sizing up even the most basic safety margins required to be road users. Can I tentatively suggest, then, that as few as a percent or two are capable of judging safe speeds without hints from, oh, things like speed limits, speed cameras and associated signs? That some ninety-something percent of people are in desperate need of hints from transport experts and road-builders so that they don’t slay themselves or other people as a result of their crass disregard of reasonable, intellectually sound, empirically justified standards of behaviour developed to handle complex and dangerous machinery?

Surely it’s generous enough that we let such individuals breed, let alone drive.

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