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Road safety and sorcery versus logical analysis 

Saturday November 10 2018
Mo.Pic

Given that the traffic systems in all countries are doing pretty much the same thing, you might expect their number of accidents to be fairly similar per vehicle or per kilometre or per capita. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By GAVIN BENNETT

Given that the traffic systems in all countries are doing pretty much the same thing — driving vehicles on roads — you might expect their number of accidents to be fairly similar per vehicle or per kilometre or per capita.

After all, the process everywhere is so similar that a person licensed to drive in one country can drive anywhere else. Even vehicles are globally identical and the principles of road design and use are universal.

Certainly, one country’s safety record might be a little better or a little worse than another for various reasons. But surely not dramatically different, like twice or three times as dangerous!

Well, as you may know, the most dangerous systems have accident rates up to 100 times higher than the safest!

Now we might be shocked by that variation, but we should not be mystified by it. Whatever accounts for such a huge discrepancy in outcomes from an ostensibly identical activity must surely be obvious.

Apparently not. Even after several decades of statistical evidence on cause and consequence, including a “Make Roads Safe” campaign led by an organisation as global as the UN, the gap between the best and the worst would be getting narrower, not wider.

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Unless you believe there is some kind of sorcery at work here, you will acknowledge that even the most bizarre anomalies must have a rational explanation. And you might have considered two central ‘w’:

First, that such big differences cannot be caused by just one factor, or even 10. They require at least some difference in almost every element of “driving vehicles on roads” — the driver, the vehicle and the road itself.

And in virtually every factor that contributes (or not) to the safe performance of those.

Second, that there is not a simple arithmetic relationship between the degree of safety in performance and the degree of danger in the result. That is to say, a little bit less safe can be lethally more dangerous. If your house has four doors, leaving just one unlocked is much the same as leaving them all wide open.

This bit of ratiocination doesn’t give the answers, but it does offer a huge clue on where we should start looking for them. The best systems weren’t born safe. They have constantly and progressively improved.

 

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