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.

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