Latest article by Dr Robert Long with an interesting, everyday example of how some attempts to manage safety and achieve zero harm can be seriously detrimental. If you liked this article then you should read the whole series: CLICK HERE. I highly recommend you check out Rob’s new book “RISK MAKES SENSE”
Cameras, Concentration and a ‘Crock’ of Non-Safety
I nearly had an accident last week because of a roadside camera and it’s not the first time. I was travelling into the tunnel which goes under Sydney Harbour and positioned beautifully at the entrance are a host of signs alerting me to the fact that the tunnel is under surveillance by ‘safety’ and ‘speed’ cameras. Road traffic authorities seem to use those two words interchangeably if you observe the signage all over New South Wales, a wonderful example of ‘pitching’, ‘framing’ and ‘priming’. If we are going to be good managers of safety and risk we need to become experts in observation and listening to language. Use of language gives away so much of what is believed and valued.
Roadside cameras are sometimes called ‘speed’ cameras but most often the authorities believe we will accept their installation more readily if they use the language of ‘safety’ cameras. The same logic applies when various groups want access to the worksite and use the language of ‘safety’ as an excuse to wield political power. In such cases there isn’t actually a safety concern but political groups know that people will accept interference if ‘safety’ language is packaged in such a way.
As I travelled into the tunnel I saw that the decline was significant and as the car gained pace I realized I could accidentally drift over the speed limit. So rather than concentrate on the road and the narrow lanes in the tunnel, I concentrated on the speedo, endeavouring to keep track of my speed. I was driving a car with a loaded trailer, the weight of the trailer was pushing the car along down the decline, a wonderful environment to exploit with a speed camera. I was helping someone move house, and with my eyes fixed on the speedo, I drifted into the next lane. It didn’t take long with the blaring of horns to realize that my trailer had clipped the mirror on the side of the car in the lane behind and broken it. As the mirror dangled and wagged about by the wires on the side of the car we had to continue on with the surge of traffic. The angry driver then sped up level with me, and with window wound down yelled abuse and insults. He soon disappeared off into a side exit tunnel.
Road statistics show that 25% more people are killed on our roads in low speed zones than in high speed zones (Road Deaths Australia, 2011 Statistical Summary). More people are killed on country roads than city roads. Yet, most roadside cameras are placed in low speed zones in the city.
My concern in this discussion is not with the fact that roadside cameras are primarily about collecting revenue, we all know this to be true. My concern is about the use and manipulation of language. If you want to learn about safety culture, values and attitudes and how to influence safety culture, then the first step is to become a skilled observer and listener of language. The way we use language is one of our primary cultural indicators. For example, those who call for ‘common sense’ usually assume it means their own definition of sensemaking, those who speak of ‘zero’ usually assume that all incidents are preventable and that scepticism doesn’t influence behaviour.
Roadside cameras are ‘speed’ cameras not ‘safety’ cameras. We know from all the research into safety and risk that a primary cause of accidents is distraction. That is why we emphasise not using a phone or not ‘perving about’ whilst driving. Many a rear-end accident occurs because the driver of the car in the rear was not actually looking at the car in front but was distracted by something else. We know that any intentional distraction in the workplace or work environment is a safety hazard. We know that concentration management is critical to the management of risk and safety. So at work we seek to minimize distractions where we can and create aids for concentration and yet when we drive home the opposite applies. Shifting the gaze of a driver from the environment to a preoccupation with the speedo is unsafe. The distraction level of roadside cameras is simply dangerous. Roadside cameras are not ‘safety’ cameras but ‘speed’ cameras.
A classic case in point is in my own city of Canberra where the local government has installed point-to-point average speed roadside cameras at the base of both sides of a steep hill. The stretch of road down, up, over and down the hill is approximately 3 kms. You don’t have to be a social psychologist to know that people naturally vary speed as they travel over a hill but with these cameras in place that has all changed. Now, people travel at speeds up to 20kms under the speed limit glaring in preoccupation with their speedo. Trucks with heavy loads have to ‘work harder’ to manage speed and weight, small cars are travelling at crazy low speeds. With cars travelling at such variation in speed it will only be a matter of time before there is a serious accident on that stretch of road. The signage for the point-to-point cameras is all about ‘safety’ cameras, a great example of more spin about safety with as much misdirection as a children’s magic show.