OUTSIDE THE TARMAC
Road safety is a wide, all-encompassing effort spread over more than a dozen areas like vehicle standards and engineering, education, response times and trauma care, enforcement, legislation and more, says Simon Labbett, Director for UAE at Transport R
Road safety is a wide, all-encompassing effort spread over more than a dozen areas like vehicle standards and engineering, education, response times and trauma care, enforcement, legislation and more, says Simon Labbett, Director for UAE at Transport Research Laboratory.
In Qatar, driving is our pet peeve. We bellyache about the traffic in the mornings. Pictures of overturned or smashed up cars are common on our Twitter timeline. And yet life without a personal vehicle is unthinkable. It seems like a cruel joke. While daily gridlocks are something we can grin and bear with, given the promise of development, the fact that road accidents are responsible for over 14% of all fatalities in the country (according to a University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study earlier this year) is unacceptable. As we are expanding our roads and streamlining traffic, it is also imperative to have a road safety strategy in place.
But road safety is not a new animal. Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) was established in the United Kingdom way back in 1933, even before fatalities on the road had started raising alarm. And now, several decades later, the problem has been exacerbated by faster vehicles and congestion. We are no closer to solving the issue now than when pre-war Bentleys were plying the roads of London. That's because it's an endeavour that requires a number of stakeholders to come together. “Delivering effective road safety is complex and just having a strategy document is insufficient; it needs implementing. Many strategies fail as they are challenging and require the active engagement of large numbers of government and non-government stakeholders. No single organisation, no matter how large or influential, can solve the challenge of road safety by working in isolation,” says
Simon Labbett, Director of TRL for the UAE. Have we got the right standards? How are we measuring them? Are we seeing efficient cooperation between the police, road authorities, transport ministries, hospitals, etc.? In the GCC, Labbett thinks the best way to bring about lasting change is “to have a high-level political champion who takes this on as a personal issue”. This will serve to get all the players to work together, hold them to account and also bring in fresh innovation in these fields. “Our goal of ensuring the absolute minimum number of casualties on the road can't be achieved unless all the components progress simultaneously, both vertically and horizontally,” he says.
Setting better standards
But the region is lagging behind in some of the more fundamental aspects of road safety, like vehicle standards. The GCC Standardization Organization's (GSO) requirements for imported vehicles are quite basic and, while each state contributes to these standards, they are not mandated across all the countries, according to Labbett. And since we don't have our own manufacturing capacity, we have to go with what's provided by global manufacturers, whose standards differ according to region. “Because the standards in Europe are different from those in North America, the cars you import from these regions (even if they are from the same company) meet different sets of compliance standards,” Labbett says. He gives the example of rear fog lights, which are mandated in Europe but not elsewhere. “During winters in Dubai, the conditions get extremely foggy and we have had catastrophic collisions as a consequence. Every time this happens there is a call for action and talk about fog detection systems but we still haven't mandated the primary safety measure of rear fog lights which would help drivers see vehicles ahead with greater clarity.”
It's crucial that the governments look at what standards we want of the vehicles in our countries that apply a certain level of safety to address our unique issues. “We can adapt standards from somewhere else; we don't need to constantly reinvent the wheel,” Labbett says, pointing out that the key, however, is consistency and relevancy to the region. Take tyres. GSO standards stipulate that tyres that have a temperature rating of less than B (out of A, B and C) should be rejected. So there is a standard, but is it the right one, asks Labbett. Shockingly, it turns out that no testing has been done locally to ensure that these tyres are capable of withstanding the high temperature of the region. “With no one having actually looked into their performance in the real world environment, we don't know why our tyres are failing. And they are, way more than what's normal. We see a lot evidence of tyre debris and delamination of tyre fabrics but don't know if this is happening because of incorrect standards, grey imports, bad maintenance or something else entirely. We can't solve a problem unless we know what the problem is,” he says, clearly frustrated. Especially because this is exactly the kind of work in which TRL has unique knowledge and capability. Now if only one of the governments, or GSO itself, would wake up and charge TRL or a similar institute to carry out this study.
Another drawback of not having stringent standards is that manufacturers take advantage of the loopholes to cut corners. “In most cases, vehicle manufacturers incorporate safety standards only because they are told to do so and not for the benefit of the society,” Labbett says. And this is apparent from the fact that European vehicles that we see driving on the roads here are not necessarily similar to the same models in Europe. “Safety features that would be required in Europe aren't fitted here. Some minibuses here come with lapbelts instead of the three-point seat belts that are the standard in Europe. Why the discrepancy
with the same model from the same manufacturer when it's a known fact that the three-point belt is much safer? I have challenged manufacturers on this point and they simply say, ‘The vehicle complies with the GSO standard'.” Labbett shrugs. And the matter ends there.
Even when we buy second-hand vehicles from Europe (with all the required safety requirements in place), we are still not able to take advantage of them because of incompatibility issues. “For example, trucks in Germany are mandated to have at least four mirrors - the regular rear view ones, a wide angle mirror and two mirrors on the side and front facing down - to cover all possible blind spots. But because we manufacture our own trailers which are wider and don't mandate to adjust the width of the mirrors in the trucks, their usefulness is completely negated,” he points out. So the governments here either haven't thought this through, or have deliberately chosen not to deliver an effective solution. It is hard to tell which is worse.
But Labbett admits it is a time consuming process – to agree on a set of standards and then have them uniformly adopted across the region. “European countries have been grappling with this for nearly three decades and only now have we achieved some sort of harmony across the borders,” he says. “We had to set timetables for countries with lower standards to gradually build these up. It takes many years to get here because there are political and economic factors to consider.”
Building on the back of technology
And while work should be initiated on a more robust set of standards right away, we shouldn't lose focus of other aspects of road safety. Like, have we invested in the right infrastructure that is forgiving when the road user makes a mistake? “Out of the three causes of crashes – vehicles, environment and road users – the last one accounts for almost 90% of all collisions,” Labbett says. “Humans are not designed to travel at speeds of over 120km/ h and though we have adapted well to the concept of road travel, we still make mistakes. But we should not expect to be killed as a consequence. Our environment should and can be built to be forgiving of human error.” This could mean something as simple as ample space to bring the vehicle back into control should it happen to swerve off the road. Or end treatments for concrete barriers instead of the blunt end ones that are deformable, crushable and tested by modern engineering standards to decelerate the vehicle and enable energy transfer over a longer period of time. This dramatically increases survivability.
TRL's laboratories in the UK and Doha (at the QSTP) do pioneering work on the different kinds of materials that can be used for these purposes. “With the help of devices that rapidly wear out roads, we can study the effect on certain mixes in various conditions. Can we dramatically reduce the cost of road building by using less material or a different one to get the same value? Yes, we can. In fact, Dr Khalid Hassan, the General Manager of TRL Qatar, has done some remarkable work on recycling technologies to meet the shortage of road building materials. So instead of rotting in landfills, these old materials can be reused to supply the
needs of the country's development,” Labbett says. TRL's innovation in road building materials and techniques has led to some of their government clients saving some 30% of their infrastructure budgets while delivering more durable and quality products, according to him. And the less you spend on the road, the more you can invest on road safety itself. “The financial investment in road safety in isolation is in itself a highly cost-effective benefit to society. Investment returns would likely provide QR7 for every QR1 invested because fatal accidents are very expensive for the society.”
But how do we know which areas are prone to what types of accidents and what kind of buffer is needed? TRL has a solution for that as well. Currently being used by the Abu Dhabi Department of Transport, iMAAP (Microcomputer Accident Analysis Package) is a collision data system that helps authorities store and analyse crash data and eventually see patterns - cluster sites, types of collisions and the kind of drivers who cause them. “By running the right kind of queries, you learn far more about what is happening in the society than by looking at individual crash records,” Labbett says. But of course the software is only as good as the data, as detailed as possible and without any gaps. The challenge remains how to motivate the police, who are always the lead authority in collecting the data, to do a thorough job on collecting data when they don't see how exactly it is being used. “What is their motivation? They are historically used to collecting information to apportion blame; not to study the problem and make a change.” Labbett can't say whether the traffic police in Abu Dhabi are being trained to collect the right kind of data, only that TRL itself has not been approached to offer any such training.
In theory, the emergence of the connected car would mean much of this data can be derived from the car itself. In theory. “In reality it depends on how much of the data is stored in the vehicles and whether the manufacturer allows you to interrogate it after an incident,” Labbett says. “Europe is likely to mandate black box data recorders in a few years but they are still wary about making this data easily available. In America, there came a point where concerns were raised about whom does the data in the car belong to? Does the manufacturer have the right to download your data from your vehicle? Do the police? If you lend your car to a friend who crashes it, then whose data is it? These complexities pose a serious legal challenge.” However, being an extremely litigious society, the United States crafted legislation around it quickly. The manufacturer now grants access to the data store in the vehicle and it is good news for them too because in the significant majority of cases, as we have seen, it's the user's fault. Also, with connected cars becoming a reality sooner than we expected, we need to devise health checks ( before and after collisions) that confirm that these complex systems, that are increasingly replacing human action, are performing as intended. “How do we know that the algorithm deployed by the vehicle worked, worked correctly and was sufficient? How can we improve on its performance? Is it possible that latent and clearly unintended consequences of system conflicts or programming are going undetected and as a consequence untreat- ed?,” Labbett questions. These will have to be answered in the very near future if we must avoid the consequences of technology overtaking regulation.
But the need of the hour in this region is for regulation to address current issues. Labbett details a shocking incident where TRL discovered that a minibus manufactured by a well-known company had seats that weren't firmly anchored to the floorboard (their seatbelts were up to code, however). And there was no mechanism for this to be taken forward in the GCC. “We have highlighted it to the authorities concerned but change hasn't happened because there is no process,” he shrugs. The truly frustrating part is the GCC has the potential to create truly world-class standards, policies and efficient collision investigation systems that can generate change; something which even some of the western countries are struggling with. “The UK has invested in the investigation process for understanding collisions and this is perhaps the best in the world. The shortfall in the UK process is that there is a lack of a connected system that deals with the outputs of the investigation process. The US invests less in the investigation programme, with the exception of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Their added benefit, however, is their ability to enable a programme for change. If you could combine the investigation model from the UK with the US process for change then you would have created a world best-in-class system. It is probably far easier for one of the GCC States to lead the world in road safety than either the UK or the US by joining up the gaps in the investigation process and providing a world-leading programme. The direction and tools are available but safety will not develop in with siloed stakeholder inputs,” Labbett says, and like him, many of us are hoping the governments in the region, particularly Qatar which prides itself on being forward-thinking, would wake up to the possibilities. It might be too late for the one-year-old baby who was burned to death along with his parents in their car or the young, promising footballer whose bright future was abruptly cut short in a car crash, but how many more lives do we have to needlessly sacrifice before we get down and address this scourge?
Why do our tyres fail more than what's usual.