Opinion: Making Vision Zero Work for Motorcycling

It's time that Vision Zero is applied equally across transport modes.

September 20, 2021

In this first of a series of opinion pieces from members of the National Motorcyclists Council, Colin Brown from the Motorcycle Action Group asks ‘Has the road safety sector has fallen victim to a brood parasite?’ This thought provoking piece discusses road safety Vision Zero and if it is being subjected to mission creep into a wider policy agenda which disadvantages motorcycling as a vulnerable transport mode. It reminds that Vison Zero should equally support all who use the road.

Going Cuckoo ...

Some, but - to be fair to the family of birds - not all, species of cuckoos are what's known as brood parasites.  This means they hide their eggs in the nests of other species. To avoid detection, these cuckoos have evolved so that their eggs replicate those of their preferred targets. If the host bird doesn't notice the strange egg in its nest, the newly hatched cuckoo will actually take all the nest for itself, taking the other eggs on its back and dropping them out of the nest.  If any of the other eggs hatch before they are thrown out of the nest the cuckoo hatchling grows faster, demands all the tasty worms that the parent birds bring to the nest damming its step siblings to a lingering death by starvation or to follow the ejected eggs out of the nest to be devoured by predators beneath the treetop safe haven.

Vision Zero claims to promote a future for all road users with zero casualties, but increasingly it only pays lip service to the word ‘all’.  I believe that the only defence that Vision Zero can mount for what its adherents try to claim as an ‘oversight’ in its plans is that it has become the unwitting victim of a cuckoo’s egg.

There is good news though.  We are now learning that the bird species targeted by cuckoos gradually evolve the ability to spot the fake eggs.  They can then take action to protect their own.  Armed with this model we are not too late.  We can help the road safety sector to evolve so that it too can spot the bad eggs that threaten the future of all the others and take action to ensure all the eggs hatch and flourish.

So let’s look at a bit more detail to understand the allegory and apply the model.

We will understand the road safety sector - practitioners and policy makers – as the parent birds.  The nest is the safety strategy that the sector uses to nurture its charges.  The eggs are the road user groups – the pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, and drivers. The worms that the sector feeds to the hatchlings are the safety interventions. The villain – our cuckoo in the nest is the ideology of promoting walking cycling and public transport above all other modes.

Let me be clear here; the cuckoo is not a combination of three eggs nor does the cuckoo egg replace those legitimate modal eggs.  One of the defining characteristics that gives away the cuckoo egg is the fact that it attempts its disguise by using the markings on three other eggs – the pedestrian egg, the cyclist egg and the public transport egg.  It is not a legitimate egg in its own right and thus tries to appropriate the others’ shell designs despite some obvious internal inconsistencies in doing so.   The three eggs whose design is being appropriated remain entirely legitimate eggs.

So the road safety sector build nests called road safety strategies.  The problem is that the blueprint used – the Vision Zero design guide for strategies - includes a couple of fundamental flaws amongst some good guidance which we can all support.  As I see it the first flaw is the credibility of setting a goal that is incredible – namely zero casualties in a dynamic and complex road transport network.  If the road network was a closed system with all variables subject to control, then yes, zero would be credible.  But the road network is not a fully controlled closed system.  This is why our Welcoming Roads blueprint for safety strategy design calls for SMART goal setting under Vision Zero.  That is targets that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.

The second fundamental flaw is a big signpost attached to the nest that broadcasts to any passing cuckoo ‘come and lay an egg here’.  Vision Zero for some inexplicable reason states a mission to promote active travel and public transport.  Let me be clear – this is not the remit of the road safety sector.  Promoting active travel and public transport is not of itself the issue.  But placing it in the work stream of road safety policy makers and practitioners most definitely is.  Would you ask your doctor to manage your investment portfolio?  Would you ask your dustman to build your house?  Why then would you ask a road safety officer to save the planet?  Road safety is about the casualties that occur as a direct result of using the road. Stats 19 does not report deaths due to air quality or climate change.  Casualties on the road happen in the present.  We don’t want road safety to be judgemental, nor do we want the road safety sector to dictate our transport choices.  Road safety needs to focus on how we use the roads today, not as they may possibly be used at some point in the future.  Your doctor may take a degree in finance next year, but today his priority is your cancer diagnosis.  Your dustman may take a course in bricklaying next year, but today he is being paid to empty the bin.  

Our Welcoming Roads counter to this design flaw is to clearly state that roads are legitimately used for many purposes, including commuting, logistics, leisure, sport and exercise. We accept no challenge to the legitimacy of any of these uses.  It then points out that no-one should feel disproportionately restricted from using the roads for any of these purposes, and that everyone should expect to be able to use the roads with equal efficiency and safety, regardless of their legal and legitimate modal choice and purpose for using the road.  We accept no challenge to the legitimacy of any user’s right for improved safety regardless of their legitimate modal choice or reason for being on the road.

A recent demonstration of the own goal that the road safety mission creep into promotion of active travel is the hierarchy principle proposed for the Highway Code.  This is a principle that directly contradicts the idea of Welcoming Roads by ignoring the true meaning of responsibility.  The hierarchy claims that responsibility is variable dependent on your transport mode.  This is flat out wrong.  Granted being responsible may be more complex based on your modal choice but that difficulty factor does not affect the scale of your responsibility.  I have never bought excited claims of individuals saying they give 110% - it is nothing more than naive fantasy.  So if we state that some road users have more responsibility than others we can only be saying that the others have less than absolute responsibility.  Welcoming Roads clearly states that all road users have a duty to show consideration and compromise with their fellow citizens to maintain an environment that is welcoming to all.  There is no degree there, is no scale – responsibility is shared equally and is absolute.

So here we are, in the nest the policy makers put together following the Vision Zero blueprint.  It has allowed the cuckoo egg in.  That egg has hatched, and we have so far survived attempts to throw our motorcycling egg out of the nest.  We are all too familiar with the long battle in the early days of the Vision Zero nest where the morally redundant claim that motorcycles don’t fit in Vision Zero had to be challenged.  Our egg was being pushed over the edge of the nest, but we managed to cling on.  Since then we have been experiencing the lingering death of starvation because the cuckoo is still in the nest.  The worms of road safety interventions distributed by the road safety practitioners have been strictly rationed.  The investment, the design of safer environments have all been thrust into the gaping beak of the cuckoo that is growing and smothering us. We cower in the corners of the nest grabbing the crumbs that bounce in our direction and duck the indignant pecks from the cuckoo’s beak.

Again for clarity, let me repeat, that cuckoo is not the cyclist, the pedestrian nor the public transport user, it is the ideology that says those are the only modes that matter.

The latest peck of the cuckoo’s beak came in the form of an ‘expert’ report entitled “Safe Roads For All”.  With contributors including The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety I was sadly not surprised to find that none of the expert contributors made any mention of motorcycles.  Given that those same experts normally take pains to point out that motorcyclists make up in excess of 20% of all road casualties it seems strange for this group to claim expert status when demonstrating such a significant gap in their review.  Are they experts on road safety or are they cuckoos?  Interestingly the National Motorcyclists Council pointed out the lack of reference to motorcycles tweeting: “New report about road safety and environment, promoting active travel which completely ignores motorcycle safety needs. Major deficiency in otherwise interesting report. Road safety is not just about active travel”.  This tweet solicited a response from PACTS stating “Hands up...an oversight.”  

PACTS: an advisory group on road safety that has been receiving requests from MAG for more motorcycle safety consideration for many years.  PACTS an advisory group on road safety that has received direct requests from MAG to debate the Welcoming Roads vision paper during the period that the ‘Safe Roads For All’ report was written  This is the PACTS that is suggesting that the exclusion of motorcycles is a mere oversight.  Are these expert groups suffering from extreme short term memory loss? Or is it simply a desire to hide the fact that they are refusing to debate any alternative to the ideology they are promoting?  I cannot buy the oversight claim. The report would be more accurately titled ‘Safe Roads For All Except….’

We find ourselves in a position where the current incarnation of Vision Zero which fails to even recognise the existence of motorcycles is touted as the only morally acceptable approach.  Indeed the current Vision Zero mind-set barely stops short of saying that all forms of private motorised transport do not fit.  If it is not walking, cycling or public transport it is not on the ‘to do’ list for Vision Zero.  

By making the claim that there is only one morally acceptable position the option for discussing alternatives is suppressed.  The original attempts to displace the egg that is motorcycling appear to be complete in the mind of the authors of this report.  The road safety sector is on the verge of going totally cuckoo.  I won’t stand for that.  I will not be made to feel guilty nor told that I am amoral for choosing to ride a motorcycle and, I hope, neither will you.

I had hoped that the Welcoming Roads vision met no challenge because it was accepted.  It turns out it was ignored by the cuckoos as nothing more than a trivial, inconsequential attempt by an amoral minority to reclaim legitimacy.  We are not cuckoos so they don’t see a need to listen to our opinions.

Supported by the NMC, MAG has formally written to the Roads Minister asking that the next meeting of the Road Safety Delivery Group (RSDG) includes a specific agenda item to present and discuss the Welcoming Roads vision.  Motorcycling has a seat at the Government table and will be using it.

Colin Brown.