Risk, Liability and Designers

Last week, I was invited by the Graduate & Student arm of the Kent & East Sussex branch of the Institution of Civil Engineers’ South-East group to give a talk on the subject of “risk, liability and designers”. The slides I used are available to download on the training page of this website.

The best events of this nature are those where people aren’t afraid to put their views across. I was very fortunate to have an audience of 40 people who were eager to contribute to the debate and it made my job very easy; I also welcomed being challenged on what I was saying too because that is always a great learning experience.

The talk started with two questions being posed;

Do the CDM regulations cover the operational part of a project e.g. a road when it’s being used by the public? and

How is a designer held accountable? In other words, under what law(s) can a designer be held liable?

There was a whistle-stop tour of the basics which are always worth refreshing ourselves on, so we covered the difference between law, standards and guidance, hazard and risk; and how liability might end up with the designer in the case of a design leading to someone being hurt as a highway user. There were some legal case studies and some worked examples which really helped get the discussion going.

If you want to get a reaction, then mention cycling, because everyone has an opinion; well, an opinion on cyclists at least. I was talking about “faith in the books” – that is people undertaking design work by simply copying what they see in guidance without critically thinking about who they are designing for. I showed this photograph;

This is a 30mph dual carriageway with a painted cycle lane wedged between a general traffic lane and a long bus layby. From a cycling perspective, I described it as a ‘meat grinder’ of a layout. That’s without worrying about the narrow width of the lane and the gullies in the middle of it.

Somebody reasonably asked about the age of the layout, which I guessed was perhaps 20 years old and so perhaps it represented a standard treatment for the time – certainly there is contemporary guidance which has this sort of stuff shown.

My argument was that nobody had really considered who the end user of this might be and in fact, the layout is probably more dangerous to use than if there wasn’t a cycle lane because of the position it encourages people to take. This is aside from the fact, that most people wouldn’t even try and cycle there. The next photograph was a significant contrast;

Immediately, the questions were of space and money. Clearly, there wasn’t enough space for this sort of treatment in the previous photograph and building something like requires considerable investment. My response was that the dual carriageway did have plenty of space, the issue is about how it is given to each mode and indeed, it does cost money to do a decent job if your scheme objective is to make cycling something that everyone can have a chance to try.

The closing point of the talk was about designers setting out (and recording) what their design objectives are and who, in fact, are they designing for. In the case of the second photograph, there is a very clear design objective of providing inclusive cycling infrastructure and it’s obvious that the design is there to enable most people to cycle in safety (actually and subjectively).

Whilst CDM will be part and parcel of how the piece of highway infrastructure is designed and maintained, it doesn’t stretch to the impacts on the end user (there is other legislation at play) and so having a good knowledge of risk management through design is the difference between the design of some painted lanes and a world-class cycleway.

My thanks to Jacob Arthurs, the ICE SE G&S Secretary for the Kent & East Sussex Branch for organising the event and inviting me to speak.

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