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The 7 Dimensions of Traffic Safety

For most of the last century automobile movement has been regulated, in the name of traffic safety, by ‘static’ signage, mostly speed limits but latterly such environmental ‘non-sense’ as 4-Way Stop signs. This in the face of the reality that traffic safety is a ‘dynamic’ function of at least seven dimensions. In reverse order of impact on safety these dimensions are: the three space dimensions (whether the roadway is going up down or around a curve); weather; light conditions; driver alertness and traffic volume (at the point under consideration)

The classic example is the imposition of a speed limit (but we could just as well use the installation of a STOP sign) as a ‘solution’ to a rising number of accidents on a particular section of highway. The public authorities take the action oblivious to the increase in traffic volume (because it was never objectively measured) and, a worse oversight, to the fact that most of the increase in accidents occurred between 1600 and 2200hrs (with the rest occurring later in the evening and being curiously coincident with the opening of two new discos in neighboring towns).

We now have a safety regulation, of dubious applicability and effectiveness on the one dimension that was causing the accidents (increased traffic volume), that is now ‘static’ over all seven. It might be likened to a broken clock. It is only ‘correct’ twice a day, i.e. the morning and evening traffic peaks. Moreover, the speed limit will often have no practical effect even at those times because the traffic congestion is so great that no driver can get to the speed limit let alone above it! In every country on this planet such laws and regulations, which from the perspective of the average citizen generate no benefit and plenty of frustration, are "honoured more in the breach than the observance."

Which brings us to a major disbenefit of the last fifty years of using ‘static’ regulations in ‘dynamic’ traffic situations. It has driven a HUGE wedge between police and public.

When I was growing up in Nova Scotia the local RCMP officers (You know. Red coats and strange hats.) were family friends. They were hunting and fishing buddies of my father. Or perhaps in the same gun club with him. I don’t remember any speed limit on the highways. The only limits on our progress along twisty blacktop and gravel roads were those imposed by the Laws of Physics. My Dad taught me that, should I see a police car on the road, the officer was a friend who was probably there to warn me of an unusual obstruction ahead.

Now, what has been my son’s experience of the police?

He has watched me drive along, on our annual 1400km trek from Ottawa to the family cottage on the north shore, watching desperately for ‘the enemy’; looking for the officer who would arbitrarily ‘fish me out’ of the traffic and give me a large fine for driving at a speed which at least 20% of the traffic is exceeding. (I hope I have nonetheless conveyed to him his grandfather’s opinion of the police and that I see them as more victimized by the present situation than the drivers they are ticketing.)

The average citizen is almost never stopped by police for violating a safety regulation in a situation where, at that point in our 7-dimension space, the violation actually compromised safety. In the case of speeding especially the police are far too intelligent* to put a speed trap in a dangerous, twisty section of the highway and especially not at a time of high traffic volume. There are two reasons for this. It is not a ‘productive’ use of the officers’ time since no one can get over the limit in ‘dangerous’ sections with high traffic volume and, more important, the presence of a trap at such times is very likely to cause a crash which would not have otherwise occurred. However, when the citizen is stopped for ‘speeding’ on a long straight stretch, on a sunny Sunday afternoon and with light traffic, the sense of arbitrariness and injustice leads to frustration and anger. "What about all the others who were also over the limit? What about the three guys who passed me in the last twenty minutes?" The current popular perception is that, instead of being on our side in the fight for traffic safety, the police have become the enemy. It is human nature that this sense of police as ‘pigs’, created by ‘static’ traffic regulations, will spill over into other areas of society.

The sooner we can get back to the situation where every citizen can see the traffic police as friends, helping them get safely on their way in fair weather and foul, the better off we’ll all be. And not only in matters relating to road safety.

*Given the selection criteria for an officer in a modern police force it is entirely possible that every officer has an above average IQ.