Stephen Ball


Highway Authorities in the United Kingdom have jurisdiction to control, maintain and improve the local highway network, and the Road Traffic Act 1988 places a duty on such authorities to take preventative measures to reduce road casualties. As such, engineers working for the Highway Authority are on the ‘front-line,’ and are required to deal directly with lay concerns relating to road safety. This study investigates the nature and characteristics of how local road safety issues are raised and how engineers respond to such issues in a local authority setting. A grounded theory methodology was applied in the collection and analysis of this data, and in the generation of subsequent emergent themes. Datasets were established containing textual data from correspondence between the lay public and the authority, and from local press reporting. This was augmented by 47 semi-structured interviews with engineers. The analysis demonstrates that road safety issues and their construction, form a distinct genre. There are certain characteristic structural elements and argumentative approaches, which are oft repeated, in lay formulations of road safety. Road safety issues are played out in a contested field, although engineers may have, in theory, the ‘expertise’ that grants them authority to assess, diagnose and implement mitigation measures; in practice they have little autonomy or control. Regulatory restrictions, political interference, resource impoverishment and a volatile public, severely limit engineers’ independence and discretion. In dealing with the exigencies and pressures of day-to-day front-line public service, engineers deploy certain strategies for ‘managing’ the public. These pragmatic strategies are examined in order to establish how engineers can best effect practical action, in the face of competing and often conflicting demands. In examining the rhetorical organisation of lay argumentative strategies, a ‘popular epidemiology’ of road safety is recreated. This term, borrowed from Brown (1992), encapsulates a folk philosophy with respect to accident causation and the measures that are considered necessary or appropriate to ameliorate/eliminate identified issues. It is suggested that in vivo formulations of road safety issues, such as the ‘accident waiting to happen’ are founded on vague premises, and constitute a category mistake. Projections from phenomenally troubling, yet largely unsubstantiable events, to those with profound material consequences, are neither necessary nor certain. In making decisions on substantial capital investments, engineers, by necessity, are required to assess competing sites on a more epistemically secure metric, namely the police road casualty record.

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