In studying the root causes of traffic accidents I initially decided to use my science and engineering degrees to investigate the base data on speed limits and traffic safety. I needed to know whether speed limits were as effective as public authorities would have us believe.
It soon became clear to me, however, that I needed to broaden my search for data. Not only did I need to speak to the traditional sources, such as government officials, university professors and other ‘desk-riding’ professionals who are undoubtedly wise and well-informed, but somewhat remote from the action.
Tour of Europe's traffic police
But why not also go down ‘where the rubber meets the road’ (literally!) and talk with some highway patrol police about traffic safety in general and accident causation in particular.
During a tour of Europe, I took the opportunity to talk with an officer in each country and pose the same question, “What, in your personal opinion and alcohol excluded, is the major cause of expressway accidents?”
The five officers I talked with, in impromptu interviews in five countries (and after I had pointed out that I would be leaving without their name or number), all gave the same answer – inattention!
Moreover their views were subsequently corroborated by officers from three different police forces in North America. Now eight may not seem like a large number, but that is only the first officer in each force with whom I spoke.
To date I have spoken with over two dozen officers without finding a single one who would argue against the conclusion that inattention (i.e. the Absent-Minded Professor Syndrome) is the fundamental cause of traffic accidents, on all roads.
It is important to note that all of the responses to the question were instantaneous, without noticeable pause for thought.
Several of them were colorful!.
The Austrian: “Zu wenig Abstan …Nein. Zu wenig Koncentration.”
The Gendarme: “Les français sont indisciplinés.”
The American (New York State Police): “People! People with their head up their XXXX!”
The Belgian (in a tone and manner which implied that everyone knows this): “L’inattention.”
You are right, but the problem is that you can’t enforce inattention.
If the speed is low, the consequence of inattention is lower than if the speed is high
Harry Lahrmann, associate professor, Department of Development and Planning, Aalborg University, Denmark