Can evolutionary theory explain the slow development of knowledge about the level of safety built into roads?
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Original versionAccident Analysis and Prevention. 2017, 106 (September), 166-172. 10.1016/j.aap.2017.06.008
In several papers, Hauer (1988, 1989, 2000a, 2000b, 2016) has argued that the level of safety built into roads is unpremeditated, i.e. not the result of decisions based on knowledge of the safety impacts of design standards. Hauer has pointed out that the development of knowledge about the level of safety built into roads has been slow and remains incomplete even today. Based on these observations, this paper asks whether evolutionary theory can contribute to explaining the slow development of knowledge. A key proposition of evolutionary theory is that knowledge is discovered through a process of learning-by-doing; it is not necessarily produced intentionally by means of research or development. An unintentional discovery of knowledge is treacherous as far as road safety is concerned, since an apparently effective safety treatment may simply be the result of regression-to-the-mean. The importance of regression-to-the-mean was not fully understood until about 1980, and a substantial part of what was regarded as known at that time may have been based on studies not controlling for regression-to-the-mean. An attempt to provide an axiomatic foundation for designing a safe road system was made by Gunnarsson and Lindström (1970). This had the ambition of providing universal guidelines that would facilitate a preventive approach, rather than the reactive approach based on accident history (i.e. designing a system known to be safe, rather than reacting to events in a system of unknown safety). Three facts are notable about these principles. First, they are stated in very general terms and do not address many of the details of road design or traffic control. Second, they are not based on experience showing their effectiveness. Third, they are partial and do not address the interaction between elements of the road traffic system, in particular road user adaptation to system design. Another notable fact consistent with evolutionary theory, is that the safety margins built into various design elements have been continuously eroded by the development of bigger and faster motor vehicles, that can only be operated safely if roads are wider and straighter than they needed to be when motor vehicles were smaller and moved slower.