Howway, Give Way!

Photo by Alan Nelson, Tynedale Advanced Drivers and Riders
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Do you know the story of the man who jumped off the top of the Empire State Building?  As he passed open windows on his way down the people in the rooms heard him saying ‘so far, so good’.  That story came to mind when I drove along the A69 and came across the ‘Give Way’ signs on the roadworks leading up to Hexham Bridge End roundabout.  The other thought I had was about an occasion, a few years ago, when I was caught speeding.  As I will explain, the reason was the similarity in the road conditions.

The roadworks at the Hexham junction have involved the removal of the old roundabout in order to modify the dual carriageway.  So that traffic can continue to flow, ‘turning points’ have been created down the carriageways and, in effect, (although drivers can’t see this) a very large roundabout has been created.  Traffic goes down one carriageway, crosses over what was the central reservation, and then goes up the other carriageway.  Like at any roundabout, drivers on the main road approaching these turning points are required to give way to the vehicles crossing in front of them, but this isn’t always happening.  For whatever reason, not every driver slows down and gives way, despite the presence of a number of ‘Give Way’ signs, and there have been crashes, and numerous ‘near misses’, as a consequence.

What is the relevance of my speeding here? Whilst driving along a dual carriageway in Birkenhead I missed the fact that the road had changed from having a 40 mph limit to a 30 limit.  As an ergonomist, I know that the problem was not limited to my failure to spot the sign; it also involved the human factors issue of expectation.  Apparently, hundreds of people get caught here, and when I revisited the location the reason was clear – the appearance of the road doesn’t alter in any way when the speed limit changes, so the only information about the change was the road sign I’d missed.  Funnily enough, I’d had exactly the same problem some 25 years earlier when driving across the desert in Wyoming.  After fifty miles on an unchanging road I crossed the brow of a hill and saw a small town a mile away.  At that point I missed craftily placed sign showing the change in the speed limit, and soon after I was contributing to the coffers of the local police department.  On both of these occasions I was not speeding deliberately (M’lord) but because I’d missed the signs my expectation of the speed limit was wrong.

Dr Peter Howarth

Ergonomists frequently encounter a specific type of problem, which is that designers are often unaware of how mistakes can happen.  If one can see easily how something works, it is not always easy to image how failures could occur.  At Hexham the ‘Give Way’ signs probably look adequate to the designer, and to the myriad of people complaining angrily on social media about ‘the idiots’ ignoring the signs.  However, the number of such complaints provide the proof that, although the signs look perfectly clear, there is a problem with the system as a whole.   

There are multiple signs warning drivers that they will need to give way to other traffic, and perhaps ‘why do drivers miss the signs?’ is not the right question to ask.   Dashcam footage and social media reports show that the frequency with which drivers do not stop is far higher than we would expect were drivers just missing the signs.  Perhaps a better question to ask is “why do people not give way”.   This leads us to ask why someone would drive straight across the turning point without stopping if they have, indeed, seen the ‘Give Way’ signs.  In that context it is worth remembering that this is actually the correct behaviour when there is no turning traffic.  An ergonomic task analysis, bearing this in mind, reveals that the problem could be a cognitive one related to the driver’s expectations, rather than a failure to appreciate the need to give way.

What do drivers expect?  The first problem is that drivers aren’t told that vehicles might drive over from the other carriageway and pass in front without stopping.  It is unusual in normal circumstances for vehicles to cross a dual carriageway without having traffic lights at the junction.  At junctions where there are no lights the driver is given explicit warning well in advance.  There is no such warning before the turning points on the A69, and drivers are not primed beforehand to expect vehicles to cross in front of them. 

The driver approaching the turning point sees the normal dual carriageway in front of them, and although the roadworks have effectively created a big roundabout, the turning point doesn’t look like a roundabout junction.  Unlike at a normal roundabout, you can’t easily see the cars coming from the right and there’s no instruction to look right at this point.  The driver who is expecting to give way will only do so if they see the vehicles about to drive in front of them, and they won’t see them if they don’t look.  They also won’t see them if they are not visible, and these vehicles can be obscured by other traffic on the road.  It beggars belief, but they can also be obscured by construction equipment and vehicles, bollards and signs – including one of the Give Way signs!

That’s not the whole story though, as expectation can be determined by the traffic.  When driving on the continent I know instinctively that I have to drive on the right side of the road, because everybody else is doing so.  On the Hexham road a driver has to give way, not stop, at the turning point, which is sensible for maintaining traffic flow.  If there are no vehicles turning then there is no need for someone to slow down or stop, and the driver will simply carry on up the road at the same speed.  But what about the driver behind, who sees the cars, vans and lorries in front not stopping?  Although they may see the Give Way signs, the expectation generated by the traffic flow is not consistent with the instructions.  Consistency is found, however, in the thought that the signs relate to the (old) roundabout they can see ahead, where the driver would expect to give way.

Signs alone are not sufficient.  How often have you encountered warning signs about roadworks, and speed restrictions, to discover that the work hasn’t started, or has finished, and the information provided by the signs is wrong?  Part of the answer at the Hexham roundabout is to change the appearance of the road at the point where the right-of-way changes, providing the extra information to the driver that it is no longer a normal dual carriageway.  Another part is to warn drivers that traffic will come from the right, and the cluttered environment should be cleared so that these vehicles can be seen clearly.  The aim should be to provide drivers with the unambiguous expectation that they have to give way at the turning point, a clear identification of its location, the information at that point that traffic joins from the right, and a clear view of the traffic crossing the carriageway.

There will be extra cost, but how much is a life worth?   As far as I know, there have not been any serious accidents yet, just minor crashes, but as the man who jumped off the building said ‘so far, so good’.

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