The Startle Effect part 1

At the end of March 2021, a court verdict in the Manchester Evening News drew my immediate attention because it appears to recognise that the Highway Code’s advice on stopping distances is – as I have said for many years – inadequate and misleading and unfairly penalises riders and drivers who have crashes.

On the face of it, it appears to be a tragic but fairly standard incident.

An elderly pedestrian steps into the path of motorcyclist… the motorcyclist is unable to stop… the pedestrian is seriously injured and dies two days later… the motorcyclist spends three days in hospital but is charged with “causing death by careless driving”.

Rider David Hurst, 52, pleaded not guilty to the charge relating to the death of Ghulam Rasul, 74, at an earlier hearing in Bolton back in November 2019. The case was finally heard this week.

The prosecution case was also familiar. The prosecution compares the real-time actions of the rider with the steps that a hypothetical ‘prudent’ rider would have behaved in these circumstances. In essence, the argument put forward was this:

:: having seen what was happening the rider should have taken steps to avoid the collision
:: those steps should have been obvious given the situation developing ahead of the rider

Since the rider DID hit the pedestrian, the train of thinking is that the rider SHOULD have taken EARLIER STEPS to PREVENT the collision.

Mr David Lees, prosecuting, said “as [Mr Rasul] was crossing the road, I would have expected Mr Hurst to keep an eye on him.” He argued that Mr Hurst “should have applied his brakes earlier” and “should have slowed down to give himself time to minimise the risk”.

Mr Lees also stated that “he could and should have taken some action such as moving the bike away from Mr Rasul but he did not…. he was beholden that he took a number of actions. He should have slowed down well before the point that Mr Rasul stopped walking… Mr Hurst should have turned his wheel away from Mr Rasul but didn’t.”

The key claim was that the rider had only reduced his speed ‘at the point of no return’ and the prosecution’s conclusion was therefore that “Mr Hurst PUT HIMSELF in a position where the collision became unavoidable”. [My capitals.]

This is, of course, looking at the circumstances with two huge advantages:

:: the benefit of hindsight to look back at potential decision points where the rider COULD have made different choices
:: the benefit of time in which to analyse the situation and show those different choices EXISTED in the first place

Fortunately for Mr Hurst, he had two expert witnesses on hand who reviewed the CCTV footage and put forward a contrary opinion – that there was nothing to suggest that Mr Hurst was NOT alert and there was nothing INAPPROPRIATE with his speed and driving. [My capitals.]

And in what seems to have been the crucial piece of evidence, Dave Poole, a retired accident investigator for Greater Manchester Police, brought up the topic of individual reaction times.

The circumstances of the collision were that Mr Hurst and Mr Rasul would NOT have collided until Mr Rasul hesitated directly in the path of the motorcycle and in the word of the defence council “shuffled” from side to side in a period of indecision.

In his view, Mr Hurst would have been aware of Mr Rasul crossing the road ahead of him but, when he stopped and hesitated, “it would have created a new element for Mr Hurst presenting him with a new set of considerations.”

And this turned out to be crucial in Judge Paul Lawton’s view.

He said: “At 38.5 metres we know that Mr Hurst had seen Mr Rasul and his brake light came on.”

Given that the judge will go on to talking about reaction time, it’s helpful to convert distances to time.

A bit of research on Googlemaps indicates that the speed limit is 30 mph. None of the evidence suggests that Mr Hurst was travelling at more than 30 mph, so if we assume that the bike was moving at 30 mph, then the rider would have been travelling at 13.4 metres per second.

So at a speed of 30 mph, and at a distance of 38.5 metres, the rider reacted by applying the brakes a minimum of 2.87 seconds before the collision.

If we look at the Highway Code you’ll see that the stopping distance from 30 mph is given as 9 metres ‘thinking time’ + 14 metres ‘braking distance’ adding up to a total stopping distance of 23 metres.

The 9 metre ‘thinking time’ equates to a delay of 0.7 second before the brakes are applied. And some fairly straightforward trials of a modern bike would suggest that a modestly-competent rider should be able to stop in perhaps ten metres once the brakes are on, and thus pull the bike to a stop a bit sooner than the Highway Code suggests.

Back to the evidence.

At the point when Mr Hurst first braked he was well outside this ’emergency’ stopping distance. The judge observed: “No motorist has to do an emergency stop because they anticipate a hazard 40 metres in front of them. If everyone did that it would cause more accidents.”

And here’s where it all went wrong.

Judge Paul Lawton noted that “at 14.6 metres Mr Rasul froze which was an understandable response but ENTIRELY UNPREDICTABLE.” [My capitals.]

Now, we don’t know how fast Mr Hurst was travelling at this point, all we know is that the brakes had been applied, so presumably SOME speed had been lost – remember the expert witness said that there was nothing to suggest that Mr Hurst was NOT alert and there was nothing INAPPROPRIATE with his speed.

But since Judge Lawton went on to say that Mr Hurst could have stopped with a 0.5 second reaction time, the implication is that he’d probably slowed to around 20 mph at this point – the Highway Code offers a 12 metre stopping distance from this speed. If he had braked hard IMMEDIATELY he would have stopped with a couple of metres to spare.

But… and this is the crucial point… this 0.5 second reaction time is based on a event where the rider has ALREADY RECOGNISED THE SITUATION as one requiring emergency braking and REACTS INSTANTANEOUSLY.

And that’s just not how the human brain copes with suddenly-changing circumstances. We have to interpret the new data and come up with a new plan. And that all takes TIME.

As I’ve said many times for many years:

“…people still have these accidents in 30 limits where conventional wisdom re stopping distances says they should be able to stop easily and the reason is they are taken by SURPRISE!

“There’s usually a three second window from the time things start to go bad to the moment of impact. The bad news is that it can take our brains up to TWO SECONDS to realise that things ARE going wrong – what I call ‘recognition time’. This leaves a totally inadequate one second to deal with the emergency. Even at 30mph that’s not enough and is why so many riders collide with vehicles in urban areas…”

Or in this case, with the pedestrian, with the tragic consequences resulting.

I wrote those two paragraphs on Facebook all the way back in September 2014, so it’s hardly ‘new thinking’.

But prosecution cases continue to be built, then delivered to courts, based on mistaken belief that riders and drivers ARE ABLE TO RESPOND INSTANTLY. And juries – not surprisingly, since they are being led to this conclusion by the prosecution’s evidence – continue to convict riders and drivers for failing to react instantly.

So having read that the judge said that Mr Hurst COULD have stopped with a 0.5 second reaction time, you may imagine just how surprised I was when Judge Lawton qualified that statement by stating that the NORMAL reaction time was 0.7 to 2 seconds. [My capitals again.]

And when I read that he stated that “The court is to award him the two second reaction time” I was absolutely gobsmacked.

And when I read his concluding words, I fell off my chair…

“The jury are being asked to put themselves in Mr Hurst’s position.

“I have concluded that it is impossible for a jury to do that with the evidence put before them.

“Considering the evidence given and the dynamics of the accident I withdraw the case from you at this stage.”

In essence, what this judgement does is accept that SHOCK AND SURPRISE exist on BOTH sides of an incident like this.

If the judge could accept that “at 14.6 metres Mr Rasul froze which was an understandable response”, then his judgement allows for a similar frozen response in the rider as Mr Rasul unpredictably stopped moving in front of the bike.

As far as I know – and I am far from a legal expert – this is something of a precedent.

I do know some people will undoubtedly see this as a terrible decision, arguing that it’s a charter for careless riders and drivers to mow down vulnerable road users.

It’s not, it’s a clearsighted acceptance that the human brain doesn’t function in the straightforward linear “see hazard, do something, avoid crash” fashion that ‘road safety’ generally assumes. Instead, in unexpected circumstances, there is a ‘Startle Effect’ which temporarily paralyses us.

And it allows that it’s wrong to blame ordinary people who find themselves caught out in exceptional circumstances and who, being forced to make a decision, make the wrong choice.

So where do we go from here?

We can try to make the system safer – that’s more 20 limits in streets busy with pedestrians, barriers to prevent pedestrians crossing other than at designated crossing points, passive safety design changes to cars.

But we can also change the way road users think about safety.

The answer is that we should be shifting the way we think about road safety generally, away from a belief that it’s the behaviour of a few ‘bad apples’ cause crashes and towards system that accepts that most crashes involve ordinary drivers doing ordinary things in everyday situations that for some reason go wrong in this particular set of circumstances.

What’s needed is not to educate drivers and riders “not to make mistakes” but to educate drivers and riders to EXPECT HUMAN ERROR in others, so that when someone does do something UNUSUAL, it’s not UNEXPECTED and the rider or driver does not suffer that cognitive delay whilst they recognise things aren’t going as planned.

If Mr Hurst had a mental picture in his head that Mr Rasul MIGHT stop in his path, he may well have reacted instantly and avoided the collision and Mr Rasul would still be with us today.

Nothing can compensate Mr Rasul for the loss of his life. Nothing can compensate his friends and family. Nor will fining, banning or even jailing Mr Hurst – there’s a potential three year jail term for the offence he was charged with – make the roads safer for anyone.


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Photo Credit: Charles D P Miller CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59850991

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