If certain so-called authorities on road safety are to be believed, the only thing we need to do to avoid accidents is slow down.
Of course, anyone who has ever had some idiot driver pull out in front of him – in other words, all of us – will know that’s not true. Inconsiderate, careless, incompetent and downright dangerous driving is much more hazardous.
Unfortunately, not everyone sees things this way. However much we shout about it, the Government is still focusing all its efforts to reduce road casualties on cutting speed. Only last week, we reported that it had invested £550,000 in developing technology to remotely control the speed of our bikes. Called External Vehicle Speed Control (EVSC), it uses a satellite global positioning system (GPS) to limit our speed, removing our power to accelerate away from hazards.
But now there’s more evidence cutting speed won’t save lives – and it comes from the very bodies working on the research and development for remote speed control – Leeds University and the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA).
Last week, we reported on the potentially disastrous consequences these devices – which were developed for cars – could have on our ability to avoid an accident if they were fitted to bikes. This week, we can reveal that the hazards are far deeper rooted than that.
An MCN investigation has found that Leeds University’s own research, based on using the devices in cars, discovered they made drivers more careless. Not only did they drive closer to the vehicle in front, they were also more likely to pull out too late in front of another road-user. That means that if it ever becomes compulsory to fit them to cars, let alone bikes – and the Government refuses to rule out either measure – the roads could become more dangerous for us.
The Leeds research involved 40 people using a driving simulator under four different conditions. Under the first condition, called Mandatory, they drove with a device fitted that made them unable to exceed the limit. Under the second, called Variable, they drove with a device that not only made them obey the speed limit, but slowed them down even more when approaching hazards like pedestrian crossings.
Under the third condition, they drove with a device which made them comply with the speed limit, but which they could overrule, while under the fourth condition they drove with no device fitted at all.
The research report, which is called External Vehicle Speed Control Phase II Results, and was compiled by Leeds University’s Oliver Carsten and MIRA’S Mark Fowkes, found that drivers reached lower maximum speeds with one of the systems fitted. No surprise there. But that’s not all it discovered.
As the drivers’ behaviour was observed on a variety of different types of roads, it was noticed that they seemed to think they were safer if EVSC was fitted. They also became increasingly frustrated with their inability to go as fast as they wanted to.
The effects on their driving habits were worrying for anyone else unlucky enough to encounter them on the road. They took more risks, were happier with a smaller gap between themselves and a vehicle approaching from the right when they were turning left into a main road at a T-junction, and drove closer to the vehicle in front.
Carsten told us precise figures were not available, but our graphic (above), derived directly from the report, shows that drivers not using an EVSC system left at least seven seconds to collision between them and an approaching vehicle when they were pulling out.
On the other hand, drivers with the Mandatory system fitted left a minimum of just 4.5 seconds. That means there was only around two-thirds as much time between them and disaster. If you’re travelling towards the junction at 60mph, it translates to a difference of 67 metres and means you would have just 120 metres to stop if the car pulled out in front of you.
The report also revealed the minimum times to collision left by drivers using the three other incarnations of the system. Each caused them to leave less time than drivers not using any system at all.
Carsten accepted that this was a " potential fault " , but because bikes were not used in the experiment, he would not acknowledge that it had direct implications for the safety of motorcyclists.
He said: " Drivers using the EVSC systems tended to move ‘gap acceptance’ in a way which is negative to safety. It’s potentially more likely that they’ll leave a gap that is too small, resulting in collision. This might apply to motorcyclists, but I could not say it definitely would until we’ve tested that specifically. "
Carsten’s report goes on to point out that drivers with the Mandatory EVSC system fitted spent more time driving with less than two seconds stopping time between them and the vehicle in front. Two seconds is generally accepted as the minimum safe figure.
Again, Carsten claimed precise figures were not available. But our graph (above right), taken directly from the report, shows the percentage of the trial spent by both types of driver with a gap of less than two seconds. It also shows the same information for less than 1.5 seconds, one second and 0.5 seconds.
It reveals that EVSC systems caused drivers to spend an average of twice as long with a stopping time of less than 1.5 seconds. It also shows that some drivers left a stopping time of less than half-a-second, whereas none of the drivers did this who didn’t have an EVSC system fitted.
Vince Yearly, of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, one of Britain’s leading safe driving organisations, said: " That can’t be good. Even in perfect conditions, you need at least two seconds between you and the vehicle in front. "
Even Brake, one of the organisations leading the campaign for lower traffic speeds, sees the potential hazards of the system. Executive director Mary Williams said: " It is the job of the rider or driver to expect other road users to get in their way and ensure they can stop in time when they do. The consequences of not doing this are fatal. "
She went on to say: " A one second time gap does not give any time to react effectively to a potential hazard. "
Referring specifically to riders, she also said: " Space is the most important ally of motorcyclists. "
We put these comments to Carsten and suggested to him that a high percentage of fatal accidents involving riders were the result of a car pulling out – which his technology seems to encourage. We asked him to justify the EVSC systems to riders. He responded: " I think you’re being thick-headed about it. "
He referred us to " more real life " research he conducted with drivers on the roads, rather than in a simulator. He said that in those tests, drivers using the systems were " safer, more considerate and less likely to have conflicts with other road users " than drivers not using one.
Carsten’s report does indeed include a road-based study. But only 24 drivers took part in it, compared to the 40 who were involved in the simulator study. And MIRA’s Mark Fowkes, co-author of the report, told us that when it came to stopping distances and times to collision, it was " a lot more difficult to make measurements on the road than in a simulator. "
However, Carsten refused to acknowledge the system wouldn’t make us all less prone to having accidents. He said: " If you bring speed down, life gets safer. "
Though the Government is looking into the system, it is still in the early stages of development. The powers that be have many years in which to see sense. Let’s hope they do.