The magical safety town of Ballarat, Australia

[Continued from What if the emperor has no clothes?]

Accidents on the west side of Ballarat were devastatingly frequent and routinely attributed to driver behavior or characteristics.  Vicroads data show that 15 people were killed in 12 collisions on a 13km length of road over 8 years from 1987 (oldest data) to 1994 inclusive (much of the west side was bypassed in 1994 radically changing the traffic volumes).  Nine of the collisions were with trees.  Inexperience, not concentrating, intoxicated, fatigued, speeding, careless…  “We implore people to heed our message, we can’t stress enough that people need to be careful” would be character of the stern warnings on the nightly news and replicated generally in expensive advertising programs.  It’s the same thing on the news now.  Blame the victim.

So what’s magical about the town of Ballarat.  Over the same period, there were no fatalities on a 13km stretch east side (starting at Forbes road for those interested where the Freeway begins).  “Clowns to the left of me – jokers to the right” goes the song.  Actually according to the behavior-based road concepts in Ballarat it was cruelly “clowns to the west of me, responsible upstanding folk to the east”.  Something magical happens to people’s behavior and personal characteristics as they drive through the town.  Whatever faulty personal or behavioral characteristics are present you would not think they would transform by driving through a town; but they do!    From west to east, the careless become careful, the intoxicated become sober, the distracted become vigilant, the weary are refreshed, the reckless become cautious, the young become older, the elderly become younger….  Whatever is wrong, whatever is unfortunate, whatever is naughty about a person is transformed going east (and the reverse going west again – bad luck about that).  Amazing!

Two fatalities per year on one side; none on the other?  Wow.  Behavior can change.  How do we bottle that medicine?  Of course the behavioral predilections did not change.  That is nonsense.  The highway on the west side of town is a single carriageway with trees close the road and the other is a freeway.  Yet road accidents are generally attributed to the identification in the mind of the commentator or analyst of a behavioral flaw or personal characteristic that they perceive has some relationship with the event.   However the very same characteristics presumably don’t disappear.  So why are these characteristics seminal in one place and irrelevant in another causing no accidents?  The answer is that they were not as important as was made out.  The proposition that we “must change behavior” is plainly false, misleading and harmful to progress.  The same characteristics said to be diabolical on one side of town did not lead to accidents on the other side, hence the assignation of definitive behavioral causes of the accidents to the west was nothing more than biased victim-blaming.  Pronouncements about the causes of accidents in this way continue every day.  It is misleading and unhelpful and leads to the barracking, exhortation and cajoling of road safety advertising.  It does not point to any reliable change.

A problem with advertising as well as it being founded on problematic accident causation concepts and leading to no design change is that its effect, if any, is acknowledged by its design as being temporal.  This belief is adequately proven by its continued presence.  If it worked well and long term then it would have done its job and stopped.  Advertisers well know this is not the case.  McDonalds has not stopped advertising.  Thus the effects of advertisements paid for 20 years ago are gone.  If they ever existed at all, they do not exist now.  In contrast an intersection realigned 20 years ago still works.  A roundabout still works.  And so on.  If you face a dangerous intersection or section of road then one reason this has not been fixed is because the money has been used elsewhere.  It may be uncomfortable but it is true.   There will be accidents and fatalities that have occurred, and more that will occur, because of this choice.   Take this bus accident in country Victoria.  Intersections like these are a trap, an accident waiting to happen.  They could be identified, they could be fixed.

This state (Victoria, Australia) often basks in glowing self-congratulation about how remarkable these programs have been and yet the relationship of accident rates in this state compared to Australia as a whole has followed a parallel line for decades.  There is no startling difference.  It is a reasonable theory that the hundreds of millions (I expect about $500 million dollars) spent on advertising could have been better deployed.  Let’s say something useful can be done to an intersection or a short section of road for $1M, then we are talking about 500 dangerous situations that could have been improved – but have not – because money has gone into advertising.  Every day people are at risk because treatments have not been done and advertising was chosen instead.  The bus accident is a case in point.  Find the 500 most dangerous road sites and you a looking at dangers that still exist that could have been improved.  I could put forward a case and a project to analyze this hypothesis but no one would fund it because the answer would probably be unappealing.   The funding of road improvements by the publicly owned compulsory insurer is positive.  But spending $1 well does not excuse spending $1 wastefully.  Better to spend $2 well.

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About John Culvenor

Hi, Thank you for taking a look at this blog. I work in engineering, ergonomics, creativity, design, training, etc. Often this is about helping solve legal puzzles through accident analysis. Sometimes it is about thinking up better designs for equipment, workplaces, and systems. This blog is about good design and bad design, accident analysis and how it can be done better, and how we can make a better, safer world by design!
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2 Responses to The magical safety town of Ballarat, Australia

  1. Pingback: What if the emperor has no clothes? | safedesign

  2. Pingback: Dumb ways to die – why it won’t work | safedesign

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