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Doing road safety differently – ending 'us v them' with better road design

New theories that are changing occupational health and safety might help to improve road safety, too

Image CC BY 2.0 Waterford_Man via Flickr

Road safety can often feel like a case of ‘us’ – cyclists – versus ‘them’ – everybody else. But an innovative new risk-management philosophy says blaming individuals is pointless and it’s the road system that needs to be changed to accommodate people’s errors.’s Matt Lamy takes a look.

I remember some years ago chatting to a senior policeman about road traffic accidents involving cyclists. “I prefer to call them collisions rather than accidents,” the officer said. The implication was that ‘accidents’ don’t just happen - somebody is always at fault. 

That’s a view often shared by cycling campaign groups and, let’s face it, many of us in the saddle. It’s ‘us’ versus ‘them’. And ‘them’ in their vehicles are often the problem, either through laziness, gormlessness or just downright aggression.

But I also remember speaking to an HGV driver – a member of a group of road users that poses the greatest risk to cyclists – who explained what happens when a professional driver, God forbid, fatally injures a cyclist. They and their lorry are taken off the road for months, they are subjected to an onerous investigation, and the emotional effects of the incident mean a significant number never return to driving. For many drivers, accidents are life-changing events, too.

Death on the streets

Both those memories came to mind when recently reading an article on the Safety Differently website that examined the issues surrounding a specific cycling death on the streets of Basel, Switzerland. 

On the morning of Wednesday 23rd October 2019, Martin Vosseler – a 71-year-old prize-winning renewable energy expert - was going to work by bike. He was riding along Austrasse, a narrow and busy residential street featuring tram tracks and parked cars when, according to the police statement: “Martin fell off his pushbike while a truck was overtaking. Subsequently, he was rolled over by the rear axle of the truck and died at the scene of the accident.”

The scene of Martin Vosseler's accident

The scene of Martin Vosseler's death on Austrasse (credit: David Weber)

The driver of the truck was breathalysed, as is standard procedure in Switzerland in such circumstances, with the test returning negative. No blame has subsequently been placed on the driver.

Indeed, at Martin’s funeral, Martin’s family and friends released a statement that said: “We have no resentment. Also not against the truck driver or their company. Martin has become a victim - like a series of others - who have become victims because we live the way we live. This is an important message to the truck driver who has been involved [in this accident] without any [negative] intentions.”

Both this personal message and the fact this case appeared on the Safety Differently website are important. Safety Differently is a relatively young safety movement that is gaining traction particularly in occupational health and safety, and which seeks to look at the bigger issues of risk management, not the checklist or tick-box-minutiae culture that is sometimes associated with the subject.

This specific article was written by Dr David Weber, an expert in Human and Organisational Performance (HOP). HOP is a philosophy aligned with Safety Differently that believes human error is normal and accidents are a sign that there is a lack of capacity in a system to deal with eventualities. In the case of Martin Vosseler’s death, the fact that Austrasse was a narrow street with parked cars on the side and tram tracks, to say nothing of the busy moving traffic, meant there was little capacity to deal with cyclists falling without a severe result.

So, to see how this approach might have wider implications for cycling, I gave Dr David Weber a call.

It’s the system 

“It’s all very well saying that accidents don’t happen and without people and their errors the systems would be much better and safer, but that’s not reality. Accidents do happen,” David said. 

“If we say only collisions happen, we’re putting the entire responsibility and the blame back on the people involved, and we haven’t improved anything because we haven’t increased capacity in the system to avoid accidents. We haven’t removed error traps or helped people avoid making mistakes.

“So what I find appealing and interesting about HOP is that it invites us to look at the systemic influences on how accidents can happen, rather than just saying an individual has lost situational awareness or made the wrong decisions. If we try to understand the context in which these errors or actions of individuals have occurred, we can help achieve the goal of avoiding future similar incidents.”

HOP’s guiding principles

  • People make errors
  • Error-likely situations are predictable
  • All human actions are influenced by the context in which they occur
  • Operational upsets can be avoided
  • Our response to failure matters – learning is key

Although he now works and lives in Brisbane, Australia, David’s particular interest in Martin Vosseler’s death is personal as he grew up in Basel, had met Martin and knows Austrasse well. 

“I used to ride along that street often and it’s the sort of place where you would least expect a cyclist death to occur – it’s quite a peaceful residential area in the centre of the city,” David said. 

“But it highlighted to me that there are accidents such as this happening all the time, and I really want to keep the discussion alive about how we can improve road safety instead of blaming individuals.” 

David Weber cropped

Dr David Weber

One result relevant to this specific case is that authorities in Basel and elsewhere are trialling new technology to mitigate the dangers posed to cyclists by tram tracks. There is also a wider movement in Switzerland experimenting with systemic improvements, such as allocating certain roads just to cyclists or introducing adjusted speed limits. 

“The question is, how do we move forward?” David said. “Do we have to separate some of these road system stakeholders? Should we stop allowing big trucks to pass through narrow streets? Do we have to remove parking spots, or can we implement wider bike lanes? There is a range of different options.”

Rights, power and safety

Although David is hesitant to recommend specific road system alterations, he believes the general direction of road safety development is clear.

“I think we really have to move away from this separation between ‘them’ and ‘us’, and about power and rights on the road. I think it’s far more a case of give and take, a compromise,” David said.

“To improve safety, different road users might have to give up their rights to travel at certain speeds or on certain roads, but they’ll then have priority in other situations. It's about allowing enough capacity in the system to deal with human error. In the accident I looked at in Basel, that capacity was likely reduced by the local circumstances, such as the tram tracks, parked cars, and traffic.”

Reduced capacity on Austrasse

The causes of reduced capacity on Austrasse (credit: David Weber)

There are also specific general considerations that could be made for bike riders.

“For cyclist safety, I think the width of bike lanes play a role and cyclists have to have sufficient space so that, if they fall, they don’t face the risk of being rolled over by other traffic. Separation, diverting certain stakeholders away from each other where we have identified critical hotspots could be important, as could allocating routes to people who all travel at roughly the same speed,” David said.

“Clarity of signage and infrastructure is key, too. For example, yesterday I went for a walk on a new bridge for pedestrians and cyclists. Pedestrians walk on the right in either direction, whereas cyclists ride on the left. But when I got to the end of that bridge, there was the old path without signage, which means that cyclists and pedestrians who travel in the same direction share the left side of the path, and vice versa. 

“A lady on a bike came towards me from the old path at reasonably high speed, and it was only relatively late that she realised she suddenly had to change and cycle on the right when entering the new bridge. The rules had suddenly changed. The signs were not clear and the situation presented an error trap to road users,” David said.

“So the more clarity and consistency we can provide and maintain in terms of signage and colours of bike and pedestrian paths, the less people will be confused about how they have to behave.”

Bike commuting (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Dave Atkinson:Flickr) 01


Taking theory to the streets

How much effect this philosophy is actually having on road planners and civil engineers is yet to be determined, but its impact is growing. “The HOP philosophy and its principles are inspiring wide attempts to implement this kind of thinking in diverse industries,” David says. 

“Governments and organisations are increasingly adopting some of these perspectives and make improvements, but I would say progress is still rather slow and we could do more to collaborate with each other to enhance road safety. For instance, there could be more cooperation between government bodies and cycling interest groups to identify safety hotspots in cities and enhance road design.”

Improvements of roads is one thing, David said, but cyclists have to contribute to road safety too. “For their own safety, cyclists have to be mindful of their vulnerability and avoid taking unnecessary risks. It’s not just about creating a better system, it’s also about taking responsibility and adhering to the system, even if that means accepting limitations, such as sometimes trading in speed and convenience for safety.” 

But, he concluded: “When I see cyclists on the road, I can’t help feeling that they need more protection and something has to be done. Car manufacturers know accidents happen and fit their cars with airbags. We can’t do that for cyclists, but we can make improvements to the road system to make sure incidents like the fatality in Basel can be avoided.” 

Add new comment


chrisonabike | 2 years ago
1 like

If only there was some kind of well-tested version of this kind of "innovative new risk-management philosophy" which had actually not just been put into practice but had been around long enough to be iteratively developed?

Never mind, we'll just have to reinvent this for ourselves or borrow from "more achievable" versions from "advanced cycling nations" other than that place across the north sea.

Cycloid | 2 years ago
1 like

The meaning of the word "accident" is changing, it used to be an event that was unavoidable, unforeseeable. It is now a collision that no one wanted to happen.

If we start to believe in "No fault fatalities" we are b*gg*r*d.

Yes a few collisions will be true accidents, but most will have a cause, probably involving human error. We must investigate all accidents and learn lessons.

mdavidford replied to Cycloid | 2 years ago

Cycloid wrote:

Yes a few collisions will be true accidents, but most will have a cause

Most will have several causes, both proximate and distal - that's the main thrust of the approach described. Too often the urge to identify a cause, or more particularly a single focus of blame, just leads into a game of blame-shifting, which works against efforts to address the range of causes involved and so reduce the chances of similar collisions occurring.

Cycloid replied to mdavidford | 2 years ago

You are correct, I should have used the plural - causes.

However I don't think it alters my argument

Papa Smurf | 2 years ago

End 'us v them' with education. It works with other predudices and discrimination. 

Bungle_52 | 3 years ago

When I started cycling the highway code advised leaving 6 feet (1.8m for the youngsters) when overtaking a cyclist, the idea being that they may fall off and 6 feet meant that you would likley miss them if they did. This changed to the same room as you would give a car, may be just about enough room to avoid a falling cyclist. It will now become 1.5m. Is this enough room?

In this case the lorry driver didn't leave enough room for the cyclist to fall over. We need to plan for worse case scenarios when in a position to kill or maim another human being. It's no use saying I didn't know the gun was loaded after shooting someone, or at least it shouldn't be.

I have to come down on the side of personal responsibility but in this case I feel it should be the driver's responsibility not the cyclist's. The cyclist wasn't likely to harm the truck driver.

PRSboy replied to Bungle_52 | 3 years ago

Agreed.  Funnily enough, when taking my daughter for driving practice last night, I said exactly that to her as we passed a rider... imagine if the cyclist fell off, would you easily avoid them?

Similarly, I impress on her the importance of speed and vision... imagine there had been a cyclist/horse etc round that bend, could you have easily slowed?

AlsoSomniloquism replied to PRSboy | 3 years ago

I passed my test before the theory and hazard perception tests were brought in. My mrs tried learning later in life and I attempted the practice HP test kit we bought. I failed initially as I was clicking on lots of parts as I saw them as potential hazards. (Parked cars, might not see a child, etc). The actual hazards to pass were broadcast quite blatantly in the end for the video which I felt was wrong as it was not ensuring you expect the unexpected and travel in that way.

Hirsute replied to AlsoSomniloquism | 3 years ago

I had the same problem. Clicked because there was mud on the road so immediate hazard plus you should now be looking for tractors. Clicked when I saw the road narrow under a bridge. Neither of these were deemed hazards.

BBB | 3 years ago

"...but cyclists have to contribute to road safety too. “For their own safety, cyclists have to be mindful of their vulnerability and avoid taking unnecessary risks. It’s not just about creating a better system, it’s also about taking responsibility and adhering to the system, even if that means accepting limitations, such as sometimes trading in speed and convenience for safety...”

I wonder if this victim blaming nonsense can be applied to rapes as well.

spen replied to BBB | 3 years ago

I wonder if you had stopped and thought for a minute then you wouldn't have made such an idiotic post

BBB replied to spen | 3 years ago

First of all, stop resorting to personal insults, please.

What's idiotic is to imply that a law abiding cyclists legally using public roads are somehow partially responsible for being killed or injured by drivers only because they took a "risk" of riding on allegedly "dangerous" road. I'm reffering to cases when cyclists haven't contributed to their collision by anything other than just being there. (unlike the case from the article)

It's no different from blaming a rape victim for walking alone in "dangerours" part of the city at the wrong time wearing "provocative" clothes. They should have done a risk assessemnt, right?


Compact Corned Beef replied to BBB | 3 years ago
1 like

Depends, surely? If I heedlessly run a red light and get knocked off as a result, I've traded my safety for convenience and speed and it's my fault.

The question for me is what counts as an 'unnecessary risk' and there's no answer to that in the article.

wtjs | 3 years ago

It is 'us' versus 'them' mainly. There is traffic infrastructure and legal structure- such as speed limits, unbroken white lines, traffic lights, bans on phone use, the Highway Code etc- and 'they' frequently ignore it. The police attitude ensures that they ignore it with impunity.

hawkinspeter | 3 years ago

The picture accompanying the article could do with a bit of an update as the Chocolate Path has been crumbled


Hirsute | 3 years ago


Mungecrundle | 3 years ago

My take on accidents / collisions / incidents is that there is always a chain of events that eventually conspire to come together. Remove any of those links and the problem either goes away or becomes far less disasterous.

Take the situation described in the article. Remove either the cyclist or the truck, even by few seconds of temporal displacement or an extra metre of physical distance, remove the hazard of the tram tracks and the parked vehicles and maybe he would not have fallen at all or the consequences would have been far less.

Some elements are easier to control than others and it would be trite to just say don't be in the wrong place at the wrong time. However there are usually links that can be broken easily: Excessive speed, distraction by phone, inatentiveness, lack of training, lack of experience, bad attitude / aggression, alcohol and drug consumption etc. I think what creates the us v them thing is that there seems to be a consistent acceptance from the general public right through the criminal justice system that drivers are going to make mistakes and that responsibility for safety is entirely down to the more vulnerable road user. The first question seems to be "were they wearing a helmet" followed by hi viz clothing and running lights. Then there is the excuse of poor driving conditions, slippery road surfaces, junction design and other external / natural factors. Only after those blame points have been exhausted is fault looked for in the driver.

Typical case in point is a local A road that a few years ago underwent a major upgrade to dual carriageway; perfect road surface, well designed junctions, good visibility and yet enough muppets have managed to turn their cars over on otherwise straight sections that they cry out about the "dangerous" road.

the little onion | 3 years ago

I have worked in dangerous environments (places with lots of hot, sharp, highly corrosive, and dangerous things). Basically, you design the risk out, both physically and through practices.


It's what the health and safety inspectorate expect. But the logic doesn't apply to roads.


I wonder what our roads would look like, if the Health and Safety Inspectorate had oversight and powers over highway design....

Cycloid replied to the little onion | 2 years ago
1 like

Spot on

Report a safety issue in the workplace and by and large it gets seen to. It may have something to do with liability, a whole chain of management can visualise themselves in the dock.

Lots of road infrastructure is desgned to kill cyclists, reports to the highways authority are ignored unless there are casualties. Drivers will always blame external factors after a collision has taken place.

The first thing we need is presumed liability.

chrisonabike replied to Cycloid | 2 years ago

Agree apart from "presumed liability" being the first thing we need. That would be nice but where in force I believe it only affects civil compensation cases.  Seriously doubt there's any prospect of this affecting the criminal side (even if it gets past the police, the CPS and you can get a win in court...) See links here:

Cycloid replied to chrisonabike | 2 years ago
1 like

I think you are correct.

But if presumed liability only affects insurance claims and subsequent premiums it will go a long way towards making drivers look before they manoeuvre.

Not all drivers have insurance of course... that's another battle

HarrogateSpa | 3 years ago

"somebody is always at fault.  That’s a view often shared by cycling campaign groups"

The premise of this article is nonsense. Most cycle campaign groups are NOT primarily there to blame individuals. They work for better infrastructure.

We know perfectly well that the system is to blame, and tolerance for dangerous behaviour has to be built into it.

It's fine to have an article saying that, and contributing some useful observations; but I do object to it being presented as something no one has ever thought of before.

mdavidford replied to HarrogateSpa | 3 years ago

It's also a bit of a false choice to suggest that either all incidents must have someone you can point the finger of blame at, or they must all be due to systemic environmental issues. In reality, they can be either, and most often both - someone has behaved carelessly, thoughtlessly, or maliciously, and that has been encouraged and exacerbated by the context.

No Sweat | 3 years ago

The quality of road design and maintenance varies widely. Ideally, roads should be designed to reduce the potential for conflict between road users, but there are practical limits to this, including cost, and space, especially in existing urban environments.

Ultimately, whatever safety features have been designed-in to a road scheme, it is the decisions made by the road users themselves which govern whether traffic flows safely, or collisions occur. The more dangerous the vehicle (larger / heavier / more difficult to manoeuvre / worse driver sight-lines / etc.), the more the driver / rider has responsibility to act in a way that minimises the risk to others.

“….cyclists have to be mindful of their vulnerability and avoid taking unnecessary risks…. it’s also about taking responsibility and adhering to the system, even if that means accepting limitations, such as sometimes trading in speed and convenience for safety”, seems to be recommending that cyclists should be segregated on to meandering low priority routes, and smacks of victim blaming.

This ‘new’ approach aims to remove ultimate responsibility from the (motorised) road users themselves, and will only serve to provide careless / dangerous road users with more excuses.

AlsoSomniloquism replied to No Sweat | 3 years ago

TBH, we do have some responsibility like red lights and not undertaking vehicles at certain points. (That TonyTheTaxi twitter did have another anti cycling clip where I felt the cyclists put themselves in danger with a conflict with a cranelorry and some road works. )

However the same section in the italics above should also be aimed at drivers. Parking in cycle lanes, parking close to junctions, driving on the pavement to get around planters or one way sections, going at speeds above the posted limit, etc,.

IanMK replied to No Sweat | 2 years ago
1 like

This was my take away from this. Surely, it starts with drivers accepting limitations (as defined in the HC) and the police enforcing those limitations and removing those that continue to ignore the limitations. If this doesn't happen we're back to square one.

alexb | 3 years ago
1 like

I feel that this article was only getting started and would have liked to have read a longer version of it. 


Achtervolger replied to alexb | 3 years ago

You might find this website interesting if that's the case (apologies if you're already aware of it), the Road Danger Reduction Forum:

Lots of fascinating, in-depth stuff about just this sort of thing.

Sriracha | 3 years ago

Too often the roads and the rules are designed in a way that defies what we know about human behaviour and failings, and then rail against the consequences which were entirely predictable, and still leave things as they are for it all to happen again.

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