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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
It was a stimulating talk by Peter Rodger, IAM Chief Examiner, at the [Thames Valley Group] meeting in January! One of his questions was this: suppose at a T-junction you looked right, and saw either a lorry or a motorcycle, 100 metres away. If the actual speed of each was 30 mph, which one would appear to be approaching faster? It turned out that what he was really getting at was which one you would take more notice of. The answer was the lorry, of course. And the lesson drawn? Concentrate harder (than you might otherwise do) on assessing the speed of an approaching bike.
But there’s an even more important point which Mr Rodger mentioned but I think rather glossed over, namely whether or not the motorcycle registers with you at all. Readers of long standing (or even just of last month’s column) will be familiar with my regular message that if your brain hasn’t collected enough visual information about an object in view, then it simply won’t be recognized.
And this isn’t a matter of you consciously thinking: “I don’t recognize that, so I had better look at it for longer.” You’re not that much in control! With so much information to gather in at a junction (or in other tricky places) the brain automatically concentrates on all the things that it has identified. Bikes that are only partly perceived are effectively invisible ... so the real lesson is to give yourself time, always, to take everything in fully.
Another situation Peter Rodger asked us to visualize was that of two cars, travelling level with each other on merging lanes: if you are one of the drivers, what things should you look for in deciding whether to push ahead or give way? A range of suggestions were made, mostly concerning the motion of the other vehicle. Later it occurred to me that the most vital consideration, surely, is whether you think the other driver has seen your car (which is another aspect of my regular message above).
Mr Rodger was asked if the IAM might organize driving-on-the-right instruction-trips on the continent. He thought not, saying that they had tried it over here and it was a disaster (well, the old jokes are the best ones). But this set me wondering about driving simulators, of which there are quite a number in use for research and for driver training around the country. Why can’t some be programmed for driving on the right and made available to the public?
I would try one like a shot: see my January 2003 column, in which I expressed my fear at the thought of driving on the continent and having to fight all the automatic brain-responses that normally keep me safely on the left, and then, if I won that mental battle, getting into the opposite trouble immediately I returned to the UK. As a consequence, I still haven’t driven further abroad than Eire...
A driving simulator at TRL, Crowthorne, figured in an interesting and instructive series of five BBC TV programmes which you’ve either missed or nearly missed: Britain’s Killer Roads (it’s all available on iPlayer until the end of 23 February – just google the title). Each one focused on an existing black spot for accidents and then on another which had been eliminated. Rounding off some of the programmes was a visit to Crowthorne to study a particular hazard.
A horrifying catalogue emerged from looking at the black spots: faded road markings; surfaces breaking up; smooth asphalt (known to be slippery when wet and also when dry, if new); poor visibility on bends; soft verges; solid posts beside the road, previously impacted by straying vehicles but still not shielded; a single-carriageway stretch of the A27, following miles of dual carriageway, hence causing driver frustration; the National Speed Limit applying in a semi-built-up area; a busy road through a village but without a single pedestrian crossing, even though the footpath changed from side to side; buses stopping dangerously on an NSL road (and just after a bend too), for want of a lay-by.
There are junctions on fast routes that lack a centre lane and islands to protect turning and crossing traffic. There are major-road intersections where different councils are responsible for the two routes, resulting in a badly designed crossing. And some councils say that there is simply no money to spare for remedial work on roads...
Yet improvements have been made in several places at modest cost: better and more visible signage installed, foliage cut back on bends, speed limits reduced, ‘psychological’ traffic calming applied – a wooden cut-out speed cop was found to have a significant influence on speeds, even! More expensive measures carried out include widening and ‘reprofiling’ of roads. But when the government puts the cost of a road-traffic fatality at £1.6m, why hasn’t still more been done to prevent deaths just for financial reasons, let alone for humanitarian ones?
At Crowthorne we saw the series presenter, Joe Crowley, learning lessons from the simulator: roadside advertising, particularly ‘live’ adverts in town, has been proved to be a serious distraction. On unlit roads, it’s found that people tend to drive as fast as if the roads were lit, even though they admit feeling less comfortable doing so. Many techniques for inducing drivers to slow down can be tested on the simulator. Sometimes the beneficial effect (for example, that of a 20 mph section of road) lasts way beyond where they terminate. People should also be aware that there’s a similar but non-beneficial consequence of using a hands-free mobile: doing this reduces the amount of attention you pay to your driving, demonstrably, and not just during the call but also for some minutes afterwards.
Which rather suggests a question to put to Mr Crowley: how does it help the cause of road safety for you to be filmed driving through one black spot (unfamiliar to you, by your own admission) after another, while talking and sometimes turning sideways to the camera, also gesturing with one or even bo... mind that BIKE!
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