Recently I hosted a conference called Safety Days at Volvo, which focused on issues that were raised in the workshops of our European round-trip that I mentioned in part one of this article. The main focus was to investigate how to better manage the safety concerns involving cyclists, pedestrians and heavy goods vehicles. This gave me the opportunity to welcome back to our headquarters in Gothenburg many of the people I had the pleasure of meeting during the year.
My own expectation was to find out where we are in Europe in terms of understanding the urban safety challenges, and whether we agree on the specifics of the problem. If we agree on what the problem is we tend to also see a similar way forward.
Timing was excellent as there is presently good opportunity to influence European transport policy and future vehicle safety regulation.
Reflecting back on Safety Days I am glad to have deepened the collaboration with the many organizations that participated, and I am inspired by the know-how and experience that were shared. But, I am also concerned for a couple of reasons I will now go through.
Policy and technical regulation take time to develop and get right. Similarly, vehicle technology takes time to develop and penetrate the market to the extent that it affects the statistics. Yet, people are coming to harm today. In much of the debate in Europe I see a focus on technical measures that will have delayed and doubtful effects. How do we secure the future without forgetting about the present?
Fortunately I think there are many tools already available to us.
To begin with, I think safety will improve naturally (although slowly) as cycling continues to grow since there is a strong case for safety in numbers, possibly as it makes drivers more attentive to cyclists.
More proactively, however, the on-going work of many cities to create space for cyclists and pedestrians and to remove critical black-spots as well as to lower speeds are important, and have immediate, albeit local, effects.
Moreover, there are plenty of good awareness and training programs directed at various road users groups that I believe have great impact – there just need to be more of them. And no, I don’t agree that making people more aware of how to stay safe in traffic is blaming the victim – although I agree with the bigger point being made with that statement.
Then there is the question of the presence of heavy vehicle in the urban environment. Well, buses and trucks perform essential functions in making society run. And, in the debate about commercial vehicles a central point has gotten lost – the importance of choosing the right truck for the job.
There is a range of different trucks available today each developed for certain applications and the related safety needs. Urban vocational and distribution trucks are designed to be compact and lower to the ground to improve manoeuvrability and close-proximity visibility. There is also a range of safety support systems to choose from. In other words, good urban safety options exist but are not put to use in the extent possible.
Among the available short term options, I would like to emphasize the value of exploiting buying power to create top-down demand for the already available solutions. We see examples of this in London via programs like FORS and CLOCS, which doesn’t presume safety is merely a vehicle issue, and there is even an international safety management system standard called ISO 39001, but it is yet to receive deserved attention.
Transport buyers should be encouraged to demand higher safety standards, since this will increase attention to safety among operators and create a demand for more safety solutions from equipment manufacturers. It is clearly a very powerful mechanism that is already widely adopted for social and environmental issues, from fair-trade coffee to biodegradable shopping bags and electric cars – which demonstrably has a big effect on the market.
How about mid and long term actions?
I don’t think there are any true low hanging fruits available when it comes to urban safety. The incidence of serious injury in city traffic is relatively rare when considering the enormous volume of traffic, so implementing effective measures – be it infrastructure based or vehicle technology or training – is complex.
I don’t have space here to go through all dimensions of future urban safety – and many inspiring visions about the future liveable city have been presented elsewhere – so, I will focus on vehicle aspects.
It is important to make the right choices about future priorities. I also believe it is just as important not to make the wrong ones. This opinion is sometimes taken as being counter-productive, but it is intended as quite the opposite. Road safety is deadly serious, and no one will benefit from efforts wasted on inefficient measures.
European data clearly demonstrates the need to focus on unprotected road users. But the accidentology of crashes involving heavy goods vehicles is not satisfyingly captured in European crash databases, and even the more rigorous scientific studies are typically post-crash studies that rely on inferences and reconstructions. This leads to too generalized conclusions and assumptions about potential safety benefits based on fragile evidence.
That is why we do our own crash investigations and post-crash forensic analyses to get to the bottom of how and why accidents occur. And why we perform naturalistic driving studies, which provide real-time high resolution insights into all aspects of traffic, including incidents and crashes. This is without a doubt the best source for deciding on details of appropriate measures available today.
We prioritize our safety developments on the evidence, prioritizing the worst or most frequent accident scenarios in order – it is the best way to ensure safety benefits will actually materialize. I can’t emphasize this point enough.
Our priorities going forward, then, is to improve upon our ability to promote the right truck for urban applications, and to help our clients specify the vehicles in the most suitable manner.
To ensure future vehicles make optimal use of direct and indirect vision to provide drivers with excellent awareness of surrounding traffic.
To continue deliver tens of thousands of hours’ worth of driver training on urban safety and unprotected road users – in order to bring out the full potential of all the fantastic qualities a skilled human driver possesses.
To deliver in the development of active safety systems that vastly expands the driver’s ability to be aware of his surroundings, and which may take action to avoid emergency situations involving unprotected road users.
To continue promote the uptake of smart zone management solutions that allow operators to optimize fleet management, eco-drive and maintain safe speeds.
And, to continue working in close collaboration with our customers and with authorities and other stakeholders to ensure system-wide progress on urban safety.
The Safety Days event re-emphasized the expectations that exist on Volvo to take the lead on the issue of unprotected road users. Thanks to all the valuable input by participants I am more confident now we have the right priorities, and although we can’t eliminate the problem on our own, we will do our part to provide solutions with great safety benefits.
PS. You can find the presentation material from Safety Days 2017 on our traffic safety pages.