Feature Health & Safety

A customer view  – the motorist

Simon Douglas, the manager of the New Zealand Automobile Association Research Foundation, was a keynote speaker at the 18th annual NZTA/NZIHT conference held late last year. He spoke about research the Foundation has done on driving behaviour in terms of road ‘risk’. These are highlights from his presentation.

YOUR CONFERENCE MAKES customers the centre of thinking of the operation of New Zealand roads. Your customers are also our members and we survey our members frequently to give us some understanding of what people are thinking about when they’re driving on our roads.

We have also completed four research studies through the AA Research Foundation, which cover the areas of risk, speed and counter measures (including a particular focus on national road marking).

One of our studies is a joint study with the NZ Transport Agency into One Network Road Classification and how that helps drivers choose safe speeds. Another of the studies that we’ve almost completed is on innovative delineations that give continuous information to drivers on the speed limits.

We think that about 54 percent of fully licensed drivers on the road at any one time are AA members. That doesn’t mean that we know everything about those members and we wouldn’t be so bold as to say that, but it does give us a really good opportunity to tap into a really big membership base and ask them about their driving experiences.

How do we do that? On our website is a publication that we’ve recently put out called ‘What our Members think’. This includes information from a quarterly rolling survey that’s been running for four years now asking our members a whole list of questions about driving and the road. We’ve asked specific questions in our surveys about speed, about types of transport systems, about enforcement, a whole range of other issues, so we we get to understand what annoys our members when they’re driving on the road, how are they driving and bad experiences. We also ask about their views on various government policies. So if the government proposes something new, we use our membership database to tackle and understand what our membership thinks. Copies of “What our Members think” are available on our website.

What do our members think about speed – 70 percent of our membership supports an open road speed limit of 110 kilometres per hour where, this is really important, where the in-built safety features of the road support that speed. Conversely, 73 percent oppose reducing the open road speed limit across the whole country to 90 kilometres per hour. A slightly smaller number (65 percent) oppose a blanket reduction in the urban speed limit to 40 kilometres per hour.

Confused about speed limits

Some 55 percent of our members support their petrol taxes being used for large public transport projects. Even more (63 percent) support cycleways and are prepared to pay for it through their taxes.

Relevant to this audience, things that annoy our audience include temporary speed limits with no workers on-site. The AA is not advocating that you should drive faster through a construction zone, but the fact that most of our members find it annoying suggests that we need to do something a bit different about how we communicate to them around construction zones.

And thinking about the road environment and speed in particular when asked “have you ever wondered what the speed limit is” some 70 percent of drivers admit to not knowing what the speed limit is, and that’s even across the genders and it’s unusual to have that evenness.

If 70 percent of members don’t know what the speed limit is then you’ve got a road safety problem.

What can we do? Research, research, and some more research. The AA Research Foundation has teamed up with the Transport Research Group at the University of Waikato. We’ve done a series of studies looking at issues covering how motorists perceive the risk of the road they’re driving on and what role does the environment we build for them play in how they perceive risk? What speeds do they choose to travel in those environments? And how can we influence their assessment risk and therefore the speed that they choose to travel?

There’s four studies in the series and they are available on our website.

Studies in road risk

The first study looked at comparing the ‘perceived’ risk on our roads against the actual risk level. Why is ‘risk assessment’ important? Basically, as a motorist, if you assessed the perceived risk as greater than, or equal to, the actual risk on the road then happy days, you’re going to be driving within the safety of the road. But, if you underestimate the risk and the actual risk is greater, then you’re driving outside of the inbuilt safety of the road and the potential for a crash goes up. Motorists need to have good information about risk because it helps them make good choices about safety.

So what did we find? Interestingly, about 80 percent of the cues that we get from the road environment to help us judge risk and speed come from really, really basic stuff. The bends in the road, the hills, the width of road, whether there’s a median barrier, the traffic around you – standard things. We found drivers generally make really good judgements of risk, but we do consistently underestimate the risk from a few key features on the road and that’s where trouble can happen.

Underestimated risk areas include intersections, roads with really narrow shoulders, roads with big ditches alongside of them, and roads with large immovable objects like trees and power poles. We don’t actually expect to drive into them and so they don’t form part of our risk assessment. At intersections we don’t actually expect other drivers to make mistakes. We expect them to obey the rules and we’re not prepared for them not to obey the rules.

Given that those are four instances of heightened risk that we don’t actually perceive, the second study looked at whether we could use common features like road marking to heighten drivers’ level of risk awareness.

A couple of really interesting things were found as accidental discoveries. Quite by chance when they were filming one route to put in the simulator, one citizen got pulled over by a police officer and was being issued with a ticket. Despite the fact the policeman was out of the car, doing some other task, almost all of the other drivers slammed on the brakes to slow down, which is kind of illogical, but police cars have a really effective impact on speed.

Barriers in the centre of the road raise awareness of risk, but don’t slow people down as they perceive the barrier has a protective quality. So for roads with a heightened risk, where we want to keep traffic moving, barriers are effective and are one of the key things the AA is advocating for.

We found the double yellow line in particular sends a really clear message to motorists, that there is higher risk, and they slowed down to take account of that risk. So that’s a really useful finding.

We don’t know the effect of an extended use of double yellow lines so this is not advocating putting double yellow lines everywhere because the effect will wear off, people will get more used to them and lose that kind of risk alerting behaviour.

While we were doing these studies the One Network Road Classification was being rolled out.

We extended the studies and with co-funding from NZTA we asked “do One Network Road Classification roads self explain to drivers?”

Now what we found when we did the study, again using the simulator, real world driving, surveys etc was that there were some areas of good fit. Typically for roads at the top of the hierarchy and those right at the bottom, drivers tended to cluster them together and identified that they kind of went with each other and grouped them together, and mostly chose speeds in those environments that were close to the speed limit – so that’s good. But, we did find some roads that had really poor speed limit credibility where people didn’t know what the speed limit should be on these classes of roads and often chose speeds substantially higher than the speed limit.

Road markings

Our fourth study (which the foundation hoped to release just before Christmas 2017) asks the question “Can continuous road markings improve compliance?”

It seems to be relatively well accepted if you paint something on the road right in front of the driver it sends a much better signal to them.

Sometimes you only know what the speed limit is when you pass the speed limit sign. But, speed limit signs have limits.

We tested Kiwi drivers’ reactions to different sorts of continuous road marking in terms of the effect they have on speed compliance. The idea is with continuous and differentiated road markings, drivers never have to be without a reminder of what the speed limit is.

The results so far are really promising. What we’ve seen is that the use of continuous road markings to differentiate different speed environments does seem to give drivers more information and help them chose a better speed limit.

This article first appeared in Contractor’s February issue.

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