It's no accident

Renowned British TV presenter Nick Ross wants to make roads safer by changing premises and predictions, not people.

nick ross 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
nick ross 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
UK television presenter Nick Ross claims he became very successful by accident. He got into television by accident; he got into road safety by accident; and he got into crime prevention by accident. Despite initially not being particularly interested in these subjects, he has hosted award-winning television shows on them, has become a passionate campaigner for them, has sat on national committees and advisory boards examining them, and has helped develop theories about how to deal with them. His recent visit to Israel, however, was no accident. The grandson of the state's first Justice Minister, Pinhas Rosen, Ross was the keynote speaker at a conference organized by the road safety organization, Metuna. Born in London in 1947, Ross first became a journalist "more or less by chance" while a student leader in Belfast in the late 1960s, reporting on "the troubles" for BBC Northern Ireland. It was also "by chance" that he became a road safety campaigner in the early 1980s, following a discussion with five or six colleagues in the BBC canteen. "I was saying that a good journalist could make any story sing," he told The Jerusalem Post. "I was hacked off that journalism mostly followed an agenda. They did what everybody else was doing, like sheep," he said. "I was arguing that this was crazy. There were huge, important issues that we don't deal very effectively with in journalism and it would do our readers, our viewers and our listeners a service if we did. A bet developed that when I went and got coffee, they would think of the dullest subject that was important but which wouldn't make a great television program. Rather reluctantly, I went and got the coffee and I came back and they said 'road safety.' At first, there was a lot of bravado. 'Yes, of course, I'll do it,' I said. However, as I thought about it, I thought, 'I cannot do this one.'" "It was what the vicar's wife did for a tea party. She had people round and they talked about road safety. It was so dull. It was regarded as the classic do-gooders area." However, as Ross delved into the issue, he realized he could make it interesting by inverting it. "I just started looking at material, and I saw a picture of somebody who had been run over - quite a graphic picture - and it occurred to me, if you turned safety on its head and made a program about danger, then you really could make a powerful television program," he said. This ruminating culminated in The Biggest Epidemic of Our Times. "I made a pornographic program. There were people catapulting through glass screens. We had dummies falling off buildings. We had people in ramps feeling what it was like to being in a car crash at seven miles an hour," he recalled, indicating that from their faces, you could tell it wasn't pleasant. "We followed a man being cut out of the car, being taken to the mortuary, stripped, and put into the fridge. We then followed the police officer to tell his wife at 2 a.m. that she was a widow. It was completely uncompromising stuff. This was in your face." ONCE HE'D become involved in road safety, Ross was hooked; at one point he was even chairman of the National Road Safety Committee of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in the UK. He concluded that the best way to cut traffic deaths was by changing the situations in which people find themselves, rather than trying to change their attitudes. This, he asserted, allowed the UK to become "spectacularly successful" in reducing fatal accidents. For instance, in order to reduce right-turning accidents - cars in the UK drive on the left-hand side - the authorities created special "waiting" lanes for vehicles to stand until it is safe to proceed. "We've recognized the value of white paint. It's as simple as that. It's better than taking a million drivers and putting them back through education schemes," he said. "Instead of drivers misjudging the speed of the traffic coming the other way on the hill, and turning and getting caught, you see them going into the refuge and stopping because there's a white line there. It's how the mind works." Ross also said that "you can transform things" by improving the sightline of drivers and through traffic-calming and psychological measures. He cited the Dutch decision to turn roads into paved areas as an example. "The vehicle becomes a guest in the space of the pedestrian...What turns out is that the car drivers feel as comfortable, when you do polls of them, as the pedestrians. They don't feel angry." While Ross believes that the best way to improve safety is by doing it without drivers noticing, he also thinks that the enforcement of traffic regulations and publicity are still important, through speed cameras, breath tests and powerful advertising. HAVING FOUND himself campaigning on road safety after producing a program about it in the '80s (called So you think you're a Good Driver!), Ross was then asked to make one about crime. "I was doing a law program for the BBC. Somebody brought an idea. They'd seen a German program and thought we could use it as a model for a rather different but similar approach," he recounted. "Because I was in the department presenting a program on law, they thought there was a relationship between the two and got me to do it. To be honest, I wasn't really interested." Nevertheless, in 1984, Ross started presenting Crimewatch UK, a show which reconstructs genuine crimes and appeals to the public to help solve them, and which became successful against all his expectations. "We were baffled," he said. Today he believes that the success was partly due to the outlet the show gave people who felt helpless against a rise in crime. "There appeared to be an explosion of crime in the 20th century," he said. "People were (now) able to directly do something, to have an effect." While saying his understated style might have added to the show's appeal for British audiences, Ross played down his own influence on its success. "You could have put a donkey out there, because the format was good," he said. In its more than two decades, Crimewatch has featured about 3,000 cases, leading to almost 900 arrests and 450 convictions. One of the most high-profile crimes it helped solve was the 1993 murder of toddler James Bulger by a pair of 10-year-old boys, a case that shocked the nation and attracted international attention. Despite Ross's initial lack of interest in the subject, crime has become one of his "many passions," he said. "(I'm not interested in) crime in the sense that most journalists are interested in crime - which is 'Who killed Colonel Mustard in the drawing room with a piece of lead piping?' [a reference to to the board-game "Clue"] - but why we allow crime to be as rampant as it is," he said. After more than two decades of involvement in the issue, Ross thinks that traditional approaches are flawed, including the belief that severe penalties will cut crime. "We have enormous faith in the criminal justice system, which is where we put nearly all our formal resources, and it's tangential to crime rates. One can demonstrate that. Other things affect crime much more," he said. Instead, Ross believes in a more scientific approach, as embodied by what he calls "crime science," which is taught at the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science in University College London. Ross is founder and chairman of the institute, having named it after a Crimewatch presenter who was murdered by a lone gunman in 1999. CRIME SCIENCE attempts to combine methodologies from a variety of disciplines, including engineering, physics, economics and psychology. However, Ross is not interested "in the sort of psychologist who looks into your eyes and tells your deepest innermost fantasy, but the sort of psychologist who understands statistical appreciation," he said. He also has little time for criminology. "I looked at criminology and was appalled. Absolutely aghast. Most criminology is sociology and often Marxist, feminist, or any other 'ist' wrapped up in a word that sounds scientific because it's got 'ology' at the end. And the great majority of it is not remotely scientific. It's pseudoscience," he said. Instead, Ross thinks that crime should be examined in the same way an engineer would examine the causes of a plane crash in order to prevent the next one. "If you look at it in an engineering way, why does this airplane crash? What has caused this? Now it could be pilot error, but why is the pilot making the error on this aircraft and not on that aircraft? Whether it's deliberate or error, actually the same engineering principals apply. How do you design out?" It is an approach Ross would take to the "war on violence" declared by Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra. "The first thing I would want to do is discover as many facts as possible about the nature of the violence. What we'd be looking at is where it's happening, why it's happening, what sort of weapons are being used. Is it alcohol related? What are the causal factors to it? And then you can begin to address those individually." This mode of analysis can also help determine how geography affects crime, he said. "What makes the villain attracted to a particular area? You find there are a whole bunch of factors, it's not random. You don't choose to do these things in a completely random way. There are things that make you feel safe, make you feel you can get away." "Burglary's a classic. We're now getting quite good at putting a whole bunch of factors together to be able to predict which homes are most likely to be burgled, and it's one of the reasons why burglary has come down hugely in the United Kingdom," he added. Ross also believes that where crime is concerned, as with road safety, it's important to change the situations people find themselves in. "If you want less crime, you have to reduce the amount of temptation and opportunity… And have fewer boys, as well. That helps," he quipped. "It's easier to change situations than people… In the United States, when people have an argument, they have an alarming tendency to kill each other. Is that because Americans get angrier more than the Swiss or the British? No. It's because if you or I have an argument in America, we're both likely to have guns and the consequences of that argument are much more likely to be fatal than if you live in Croydon (in London). If you or I have an argument in Croydon, it's possible that we'll have a knife, which is much less likely to be fatal, but it's much more likely that we won't have any [weapon]." Ross also explained how pubs in Canada and Australia reduced the number of injuries from drunken brawls by using glasses that crumble when smashed, rather than ones that break into large pieces with jagged edges. "What that has done is to transform, not the fact that people lose their tempers, but when they do they tend to hit somebody rather than take their eye out with a jagged piece of glass," he said. What Ross wants, therefore, is for companies to design their new products with crime prevention in mind. "Government and business need to recognize that every policy, every service and every product that we turn out is likely to inspire crime - is likely to create new vulnerabilities which make our users, our citizens, more likely to become victims, so the emphasis needs to be 'Those who lead us into temptation deliver us from evil.'" Ross described how previous generations prevented horse theft, "which was the scourge throughout history," but didn't use the same lessons when cars became popular. "Horse stealing has become extinct because there's no longer any temptation to steal horses. Instead we have car crime, but did we build security measures into our cars? With horses we'd learned to do all sorts of things, like branding them…People locked them in stables and had people watching them, and all the rest of it," he said. "When cars were introduced, we'd learned none of this, and so we had this huge surge in car crime, and then we started fitting dead locks to them; we started fitting electronics to stop people hot-wiring them. Car crime has come down." This is where economics comes in. "How often are the police interested in economics? But economics drives most crime," he said. "What we're trying to find is economic levers that make it profitable. I'm a company in Israel; I'm going to come up with some new whiz electronic device that no one's ever thought about before and I want to make people think from the start, could this encourage crime? Could this be used in crime? Could this be used to hurt the consumer? Could this be misused by somebody to hurt somebody else, and if so how? And what can I do, what can I build in to prevent that? And how can I make a profit from preventing that?" One of the more esoteric angles that researchers at the crime institute are examining is how the study of material sciences could apply to crime prevention. "If you look at the way molecules get through barriers, there are some surprising statistical analogies with crime, and why certain things become vulnerable to crime," Ross said. "Now it's very unlikely that material science can help us, but maybe some of the equations they've built up can help us be predictive about crime and therefore to help design round it."