A comment about traffic

Opinion piece from National Online Opinion http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/parental-protection-can-be-a-social-trap-20101022-16x9e.html

Parental protection can be a social trap

Julie Rudner

October 22, 2010

Concerns about dangerous intersections and traffic have been around since the horse and cart. So, why do we still have issues? A number of factors are believed to contribute to traffic problems: higher car ownership, faster cars, lower density cities, poor public transport, preference for distant private schools rather than local schools, car culture. I wonder how much of our concern also has to do with how we collectively and individually manage risk.

When parents and carers seek to protect their own children from the dangers of the road by driving them to school, they actually contribute to high volumes of traffic, reinforcement of traffic speeds and worry about driver behaviour. Like the invisible hand of the market, individual decisions lead to collective outcomes – and there are some outcomes we don’t like.

This cycle, which helps parents amass evidence of potential traffic dangers that reinforce their concern, is what Paul Tranter at the University of NSW (Australian Defence Force Academy) calls a ‘social trap’. He observes that there is uncertainty for those who want to break cycle: Will others join me? Will drivers be careful so my child is not harmed?

I recently read an article in a local newspaper that articulated this concern. Parents from South Camberwell in Melbourne’s east were banding together to try and lower the speed limits around a local primary school. VicRoad’s rationale for not lowering the speed limit on one particular road was due to the school gates being located on a smaller side street. Perhaps VicRoads assumes all kids live school-side of the major road, or traffic shouldn’t be impeded by kids walking or cycling to school.

Concern about traffic in Camberwell reflects the experiences of many parents who I speak to, and research from around the world. My own studies in the Western suburbs of Melbourne showed that 62.3 per cent of parents surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that there were dangerous intersections, and 73.6 per cent of parents indicated that motorists drive too quickly.

In Australia, traffic is managed through road design, driver behaviour, road safety education, and insurance. However, management of the transport system rests on vested interests in maintaining transport efficiency as it is defined by the flow of traffic. Government, car clubs, and drivers (many of whom are parents) want to get places quickly. The mobility of children, along with others who walk, cycle or use public transport, is viewed and treated as less important. Therefore, the collective management of risk favours drivers. Is it any surprise many parents choose to individually control children’s exposure to traffic hazards by not allowing them to go places on their own?

My research showed the majority of our transport policies define traffic hazards in specific ways, and these definitions determine how data about traffic incidents are collected and analysed. Unsurprisingly, this data is used to further identify, monitor, and control driver, cyclist and pedestrian behaviour. With efficiency as the main objective, it is easy for policies to suggest that children are responsible for accidents, and carers are irresponsible for allowing children to cross roads on their own. Imagine if we had different priorities!

Transport organisations encourage carers to individually manage potential hazards and associated risk to children by selectively promoting some research outcomes over others. In report by Austroads (2000), children were deemed the traffic problem, yet a different report by the same authors in the same year, observed other studies found children’s competencies at crossing roads are not that different to those of adults. Children’s skills to cross roads could be trained by exposure and experience. However, children’s competence is not promoted in educational material.

A more collective approach to traffic risk management is needed. In many European countries pedestrians and cyclists have right of way over motorists; drivers stop for pedestrians to cross roads even when they are still standing on the curb; school zones and residential areas have speed limits of 30km/h. In Australia there are variations of 40km/h speed limits surrounding schools, 50km/h limits in residential areas, and 60-80km/h limits along arterial roads; hence we rely on school crossings. School crossings have benefits, but they also imply that drivers do not need to watch for children during out of school hours or in non-sign posted areas. For some reason we expect children will act differently to adults by always crossing at posted crossings.

If we want more children to go places on their own, two actions we can take are: driving less and pushing for lower speed limits. Transport bodies know speed limits should be reduced but another 2005 report from Austroads is telling: “Despite the demonstrable safety benefits of reduced travel speeds, Australasian speed zones are amongst the highest in the world. Given this situation, it was decided that any lowering of speed limits likely to lead to significant reductions in road trauma, would still need to leave speeds high enough to be acceptable to Australasian road users, transport agencies and decision-makers.”

The late Harold Proshansky, an American ecological psychologist, observed that when the environment doesn’t match our personal preferences, we tend to change our environment, change others in our environment or change ourselves.

We have the capacity to collectivise our political resources to change the current situation, but it’s difficult. What do we actually prefer: lower speed limits, active transport and more children on the street, or higher speeds, cars and chauffering?

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About Julie Rudner

With great excitement for the adventure we were about to go on, my mother would shout out, "We're off to see the Wizard"! It didn't matter if we were going to the shops for milk, the museum or a holiday. My mum focused on the joy of the everyday, knowing that if we engaged with life, we would always find something new and positive. With great animation my dad would explain the workings of things and how to pull things apart, put them back together, and if the situation called for it, make something new. My sister and I were taught to evaluate situations, make our decisions, and reap the consequences (both good and bad). We were encouraged to push our boundaries and not let fear prevent us from pursuing our dreams. Importantly, we learned to pick ourselves up, learn from our 'failures', and use our valuable lessons to build our confidence, independence and strength in ourselves.
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