Thursday, December 1, 2011

We're going for ... a walk. God help us!!

Today at school, our boy got a gift from the II. District government: a fluorescent lime safety vest meant to wear whenever he's walking or bicycling in the city.
The II. District is looking out for me! But missing the point.
It came with a note, signed by the district mayor, explaining that "the safety of children is the responsibility of adults -- our responsibility." And continued that children get into accidents more easily and, regrettably, more frequently, and they make up the majority of those involved in accidents as cyclists or pedestrians.

And while noting that increased attention is needed on the part of motorists, the letter emphasized that it is necessary to develop proper travel behaviour among children in the interest of avoiding accidents.

The letter concludes by noting that because a parent "can't be next their child every second," this reflective vest can provide a useful, effective service by helping the little ones (a kicsik) to draw attention to themselves from motorists.

I feel bad whinging about this, because I believe this gesture came from a good place and, of course, I'm grateful that the local önkormányzat considers the safety of local children a priority.

At the same time, I feel myself recoiling from this unsolicited advice just as I do when older Hungarian women offer to help with our little daughter whenever we're out in public. If you're a parent, you're familiar with the issue. You're out with your baby on a perfectly pleasant summer day, but a square centimetre of her abdomen is exposed to the air -- the air!! -- and so an endless succession of kind-hearted women accost you to express pity for your child and ask if you don't think your baby's freezing.

It's the same thing with the protective vest. The sentiment is nice, I suppose, but it reflects a quaint, wrongheaded approach that doesn't do anything to help my child. If the mayor's really interested in helping, he needs to know that the main transport hazards that Lance faces on the streets of this district are from fast-moving cars. Of course both my wife and I work to instill safe walking and cycling behaviour in him, as we would anywhere. But this city, including this district, has a problem with traffic speeds. A city is no place for an expressway, but Budapest is full of urban expressways that don't allow for the slimmest margins of error for a rambunctious child on a sidewalk.

I love the small of a traffic jam in the morning!
 The main hazard Lance and I face everyday in District II is the traffic on Margit körút. This street is a typical four-lane, Budapest expressway, and it runs between our flat and the turnoff to Lance's school. Lining the street are dozens of apartment blocks, a park with playgrounds, restaurants and bakeries, a cinema, three grocery stores and the Mammut shopping mall -- places that attract droves of "little ones". The körút is also the route of the city's most heavily used tram line, which ferries hundreds of children and their parents to and from schools, kindergartens and daycare centres located just off the körút. This corridor teems with pedestrians of all ages every rush hour, and yet, the vast majority of space on the körút is devoted to car traffic and the cars rush by at ridiculous speeds.

In my view, the best way to enhance children's safety on the streets of II. District would be to calm the traffic. On the körút, the sidewalks could be widened, bike tracks added on both sides of the street and motor circulation restricted to one lane in each direction. But most importantly, the speeds could be slowed down to 30 kph. Studies have been shown that speed reduction is one of the most effective ways to avoid accidents and reduce the incidence of serious injuries and fatalities. 

Ironically, I occasionally don one of these ugly reflective vests while cycling at night in Budapest. And I see more and more cyclists in Budapest wearing these things -- during the night and day. I think this is profoundly wrong -- you shouldn't have to dress up like a emergency-services worker to ride a bike. And now, the district government is advising parents to put these things on their children whenever they set foot on a district sidewalk. Is this not a sign a problem?

Postscript: Despite my philosophical quibbles with the District II's child-safety scheme, Lance couldn't wait to put his new vest on this morning. Later,  I had cause to puzzle about this apparent enthusiasm. He wore it on our bike ride to school. But when I dropped him off at the front gate, he took off the vest and handed it to me. I didn't understand -- why didn't he just wear it into the school and take it off in the class room, along with his coat and mittens? He said he didn't want to -- he wanted me to take it home. Then I teased him: C'mon Lance, you're teachers will say you're a bright student. I can't resist stupid word plays. And it made Lance cross with me. At any rate, for some reason, he did not want his friends to see him in that vest. At seven years of age, he's more fashion conscious than he once was, and this vest apparently sets him apart in an unpleasing way. Maybe he thinks it makes him look like a momma's boy. I'm not sure, but he's definitely got some reservations about this thing.

Lance dons the safety vest. But will it be a
short flirtation with fluorescent fashion?


Jelica said...

Do you also think it is profoundly wrong to turn on your head and tail lights in the dark? I think the same logic applies to wearing a reflective vest.

I agree that calming traffic should be the main measure of increasing safety of everyone. That said, even if a car hits you at "only" 30km/h because the driver didn't see you, you will most probably survive but you might get seriously injured. So ensuring visibility has a role to play in addition to reducing speed.

Greg Spencer said...

I think lights at night are important (and have written a couple recent posts on the subject). They're simply necessary at night so that you're visible to everyone else sharing the road -- including pedestrians and other cyclists. Reflectors and bright vests don't suffice because they don't produce their own light.

But front and back lamps should be enough. If people want to deck themselves out, additionally, in safety vests, that's their prerogative. But authorities shouldn't require it and neither should they promote it. When a local gov't goes down this road -- with public campaigns to make people think they need special clothing to go for a walk with their kids, they've lost the plot.

Local authorities should ensure that public sidewalks are inviting, safe places to walk and promoted as such. And I feel the same about city streets. When you have people cycling in the city centre in reflective vests -- looking like traffic cops or security thugs or disaster first responders -- this does nothing for people's feeling of safety or belonging.

Show me one city travel brochure or postcard featuring a cyclist (or pedestrian) in a safety vest. Doesn't exist because this is no one's idea of the good life.

dalos said...

from the other hand: by wearing this west you endanger the others who does not...
that's one reason why it is pretty contraproductive to promote safety like this...
thanks Greg, great post!

More speed control onto the Margit krt and Margit-híd!

Greg Spencer said...

Thanks, Peter, I knew you'd agree on the korut's speed problem.

I've thought about the possible counter effects of wearing reflective vests. Does it make other cyclists less visible or does it heighten people's awareness of the presence of (all) cyclists on the road?

The latter possibility is how I justify wearing a vest when I do wear one. :-)

kristin said...

I also noted to Greg that there's a perfectly good route that is mostly along bike paths or low-traffic roads that would work just fine if we could only get everybody ready 5-10 minutes earlier in the morning.

Today when I went to pick Lance up at school one of his classmates was wearing the vest in the classroom! Can't be too careful when it comes to Budapest drivers, I guess.

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