BOOK REVIEW / A roads scholar questions the art of belting up: 'Death on the Streets' - Robert Davis: Leading Edge, 11.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
ROBERT DAVIS is a man obsessed, and something of a conspiracy theorist. This is a pity: his book makes disturbing reading for any motorist, and his lapses into the world of evil forces, backed up at times with obscure statistics, weakens the central thrust of an otherwise carefully marshalled and challenging argument.

Davis argues that road safety measures - which include everything from straightening out bends at accident black spots to making drivers wear seat belts - do not make roads safer for vulnerable pedestrians or cyclists. Indeed, they have the opposite effect. The recently relaunched Tufty, it seems, is not a guiding light for the young but an enemy within, implicitly allowing drivers to absolve themselves from responsibility for their actions and making it more likely that they drive in such a way as to endanger children's lives. As Davis notes: 'It is the children who are anticipating danger and behaving responsibly, not the drivers.'

Education, he suggests, should be channelled towards motorists rather than aimed at children, who will 'behave as children always have done'.

The principal theoretical backing for his thesis is 'risk compensation'. The theory suggests that there is a constant process of adapting to changes in road safety, and therefore any attempts to reduce risk in one part of the driving environment lead to increased risks elsewhere. For example, research shows that when measures are taken to eliminate accident black spots, the rate of mishaps at nearby junctions increases. The number of accidents is not reduced, but simply redistributed.

Another part of the theory suggests that increasing overt danger leads to a decrease in risk-taking by drivers. What, asks Davis, could be more dangerous than changing the side of the road on which you drive, as the Swedes did in 1967? But the accident rate fell dramatically. Or take a more crude example. What motorist would not drive more carefully when their car was carrying a load of gelignite in front seat?

Seat belts are the clearest illustration of this concept. Davis draws widely on analyses of international casualty statistics to suggest that seat-belt wearing does not reduce casualties overall. The lives of motorists are indeed being saved, but at the cost of those of other road users. There is some strong evidence here. In the two- year period after the seat-belt law was introduced a decade ago, pedestrian casualties rose 14 per cent, rear-seat passengers 27 per cent and cyclists involved in accidents with cars 40 per cent. Davis attributes the overall reduction in road deaths to less drink-driving and the increase in cars on the road which, he argues, increases the amount of danger and encourages people to drive more carefully.

The problem, though, is Davis's obsessiveness. The statistics and the time periods are often chosen very selectively to back up his case, rather than to explore genuine areas of doubt.

Inevitably, the book moves towards a wider view of transport strategy. If road safety measures cannot reduce the death toll, the very role of the motorist and the car needs challenging. There are, as he puts it so gently, 'one or two problems with cars'. The book's pictures of British cities show that even as late as the Sixties children were playing in the streets. They are a powerful illustration of how many of the changes brought about by the motor car have been damaging in ways that are never discussed. For example, Davis costs the need of parents having to escort children to school, rather than allowing them to walk, at between pounds 5bn and pounds 20bn. While we can quibble with the figures, the reasoning is sound.

It is Davis's ability to raise issues that run counter not only to conventional wisdom but also to gut feeling that makes it worth working through the, at times, over-egged arguments. We all want to feel that by belting up we may well save our own lives, and we immediately dismiss notions that it will make us drive 10mph faster. As an urban cycle rider, I wear a helmet and am convinced that I don't ride any more dangerously than I would otherwise. But deep down I suspect he may have something of a case.