subjective safety special

“In its raw state the reflexive fluidity of the World overwhelms our limited powers of comprehension. We resort to simplification and abstraction in an attempt to cope.”

“In its raw state the reflexive fluidity of the World overwhelms our limited powers of comprehension. We resort to simplification and abstraction in an attempt to cope.”

John Adams

Obsession with anniversaries make this an auspicious week to consider ‘subjective safety’. A concept which has lately gained some traction in the zany World of bicycle politics.

passengers comfortable, ship unsinkable, shipwreck unthinkable

Traditional estimates of risk and safety relate to actuarial statistics, data about what’s happened before. Subjective safety is a psychological concept about how people feel.

Subjective safety fits into a theory that a mass of pre-cyclists are standing-by, waiting for ‘subjective safety’ to pass a critical threshold so they can hit the radweg. Advocates describe the theory as ‘simple’ but human motivation, human comfort, are slippery fish.

Do the people who ride motor-cycles, for short journeys, maybe to the gym, do it because bicycling is too safe? Everyone knows motor-cycles are really dangerous.

There are other ways to describe subjective safety. A misplaced feeling of safety is complacency. Over-estimate of threats is paranoia. An informed risk-assessment makes the concept redundant, ‘subjective safety’ and safety can then be treated as the same.

Risk-assessment is a key skill in enjoying cycle-travel. Successful risk-assessment is a life-enhancing faculty. Over-estimate hazards and you miss out on fun and excitement, under-estimate dangers and you may come a cropper. Learning to ride a bike is learning to live.

September 3, 1967, was a significant date in Sweden. Road traffic switched from travelling on the left in the English pattern to moving on the right in the German style. The significant drop in crashes in the period after the change has led John Adams to suggest that the best way to make road traffic safe would be to change the rules about which side of the road to travel on every six weeks, or better still to have no rules at all.

The simple formalities of traffic circulation allow people operating vehicles on the highway to concentrate their vigilance and therefore go much faster than would otherwise be safe. The system that regulates social interactions on our highways is called ‘road safety’ when really it’s the opposite, a social code that routinely enables highly dangerous behaviour, while keeping carnage and destruction at an acceptable level. When the very name of the system obscures its real purpose, it’s not surprising that some people have trouble assessing the risks of travel.

Its customary to describe threats from motor-traffic, threats from the current system of hyper-mobility, in euphemistic terms. People talk about the ‘dangers of busy roads’, ask bicycle users if they aren’t ‘frightened of the cars?’ Systems failures that happen every day are always ‘accidents’ never ‘crashes’.

This picture – “The Cars That Ate Paris”  aims to make it’s audience subjectively endangered – a jolly Australian horror that prefigures the successful ‘Mad Max’ series deserves wider distribution, a reissue, maybe even a remake? If you haven’t seen it take any chance you get.

A road is only dangerous if liable to flash floods, avalanche or some other natural disaster. Cars are dangerous if they catch on fire or are left parked on inclines with hand-brakes disengaged. The routine danger comes from people. Nice people like you and me.

The person who thinks it’s safe, normal and sane to negotiate a junction in a heavy vehicle, too fast for full control, with one hand holding a phone into which they are talking, is just as deluded as the person who can’t consider riding a bike. The latter doesn’t need a reason but if pressed may offer ‘I’d be too frightened’.

Neither are bad people. Neither deserve to be indulged. They need help, but trying to re-engineer the World to accommodate a warped analysis won’t help either of them.

They might even be the same person?