Equine road user safety

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Pre-print of Chapman, C. and Musselwhite, C.B.A. (2011) Equine road user safety: Public attitudes, understandings and beliefs from a qualitative study in the United Kingdom Accident Analysis and Prevention, 43 (6), 2173-2181 DOI information: 10.1016/j.aap.2011.06.009


Catherine Chapman

Senior Traffic Engineer

ADL Traffic Engineering

9 Coldbath Square



Tel 020 7278 8844


Dr Charles B A Musselwhite (corresponding author)

Senior Lecturer in Traffic and Transport Psychology

Centre for Transport & Society

University of the West of England

 Frenchay Campus

Coldharbour Lane. Bristol BS16 1QY. United Kingdom.

T: 0117 32 83010

Email: Charles.Musselwhite@uwe.ac.uk




Horse riders represent a significant group of vulnerable road user and are involved in a number of accidents and near misses on the road. Despite this horse riders have received little attention both in terms of academic research and transport policy. Based on literature on vulnerable road user safety, including attitudes to road user safety and behaviour of drivers and their relationship with cyclists and motorcyclists, this paper examines the attitudes and reported behaviour of drivers and horse riders. A total of 46 participants took part in six focus groups divided into four groups of drivers with little or no horse riding experience and two groups of frequent horse riders. Each group investigated five key topic areas stemming from the literature review on vulnerable road users including hazard perception, risk perception, emotion, attitudes to sharing the road and empathy. It was found that drivers and horse riders are not always aware of the same hazards in the road and that this may lead drivers to under-estimate the risk when encountering horses. Drivers often had good intentions to overtake horses safely, but were unaware of how vulnerable passing very wide and slow made them feel until they had begun the manoeuvre and hence quickly reduced such feelings either by speeding up or cutting in too soon. However, other than this, drivers had good skills when encountering horses. But these skills could be impeded by frustration when encountering a slow moving horse which was further compounded by a feeling, mainly by younger drivers, that horse riding was for leisure and as such should not get in the way of necessary work journeys. There is a need for drivers to be more aware of the potential hazards a horse rider faces on the road and these could be achieved through inducing empathy amongst drivers for horse riders, creating nudges for drivers in the environment and better education for drivers.

1. Introduction

Horse riders have received comparatively little attention compared to other vulnerable road user groups both in terms of academic research and transport policy. This paper presents research that aimed to provide an exploratory understanding of the socio-psychological processes which may relate to road traffic accidents involving motorists and horse riders and to recommend measures for policy and practice to improve road safety for all users. To focus the paper, research findings associated with other vulnerable road users were examined and used to frame the methodology and findings.

The British Equestrian Trade Association National Equestrian Survey (BETA, 2006) estimated that 4.3 million people had ridden a horse in Great Britain in the last 12 months (7% of the population), with 2.1 million people riding at least once per month. It is estimated that there are around 900,000 domestic horses in the United Kingdom (UK) and that 81% of these horses are used for purposes that could require general on or off road exercise (Moore-Colyer, 2004). An online poll of 1,021 horse riders found that 69% rode on public roads more than twice per week (Horse and Hound, 2007).

The Department for Transport ‘Road Casualties Great Britain’ report (DfT, 2008) states that there were 106 horse rider traffic accidents reported in Great Britain of which two involved human fatalities, 18 involved serious injuries to humans and 86 slight injuries to humans. Table 1 illustrates that the number of horse rider traffic accidents has decreased between 2004 and 2008 in Great Britain from 132 in 2004, to 106 in 2008. Traffic accidents have almost exclusively fallen on roads in non-built-up areas, whereas those in built-up areas remain at a similar number. The British Horse Society (BHS) estimates that there may be a far higher number of horse-related traffic accidents every year than is reported in such statistics, possibly in the region of 3,000 if minor human injuries are taken into account (DfT, 2000). In addition, the number of near misses horse riders experience is high; for example Cheshire County Council (CCC, 2005) and Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council (RCBC, 2005) found that whilst only around 10% of horse riders had been involved in a traffic accident in the last 5 years, 60% reported being in a near miss in the same time period. The high number of near misses indicates that there is a potentially significant road safety issue which needs to be addressed.

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The paper takes the view that road user behaviour cannot be isolated from the social context within which it operates. People’s road user safety behaviour is related to the social issues associated with how people perceive and accept levels of risk on the road (Haglund and Åberg, 2000; Musselwhite et al., 2009, 2010a; O’Connell, 2002). Central to the social context of the road are attitudes which can broadly be defined as “...a positive, negative, or mixed reaction to a person, object, or idea” (Brehm et al., 2002, p. 179) and “a psychological tendency that is expressed by evaluating a particular entity with some degree of favour or disfavour” (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993, p. 1). Hence, attitudes can be seen to be an evaluative reaction to a concept, such as road user safety. Although, it is acknowledged there might be an attitude-behaviour disconnect, understanding associated social context could demonstrate potential clues which help explain why people behave the way they do in certain situations.

It can be argued that horse riders are a vulnerable road user group similar to that of pedestrians and cyclists. They share a similar lack of physical protection when sharing road space with vehicles (Musselwhite, et al., 2010a). In addition, they travel at relatively slower speeds and are less manoeuvrable than motorised vehicles, especially cars. They are also a minority road user, similar to pedestrians and cyclists. Horses, as road users, also pose additional risks. Horses weigh more than bicycles. In addition, riders have a greater height to fall from and risk being kicked or crushed in the process. In addition, unlike a cyclist falling from a bicycle, separation of the rider from the horse in a fall is likely to cause the loose horse to panic and create a danger for other road users. It is concluded that horses and riders could be considered to be potentially more physically vulnerable than cyclists. The British Horse Society (BHS, 2010) suggest that the fundamental difference between horse riders and other road users is that horses are animals and not machines and are therefore irrational and unpredictable. Horses may react not just to other road users which may frighten or ‘spook’ them but also to external factors in the environment. These can include seemingly everyday items or such as drains, plastic bags, lawn mowers, and umbrellas (BHS, 2010). Understanding the full potential of a horse as a hazard therefore requires drivers to have some appreciation of horse behaviour. It is suggested that similarity and distinction of horses and their riders as vulnerable road users similar to pedestrians and cyclists in these areas is best further explored, initially at least, through research producing qualitative data.

In comparison to research on other vulnerable users, it could be expected that horse riders will have a different more microscopic level of hazard perception compared to car drivers as is found with cyclists and motorcyclists (e.g. Horswill and Helman, 2003; Hosking et al., 2010; Shahar et al., 2010). Previous research with cyclists suggests they feel particularly vulnerable when being followed close behind (Davies et al., 1997). This is likely to be amplified with horses who cannot use both monocular and binocular visions at the same time; if something scares a horse from behind or to the side of it (such as a vehicle), the horse may spin around or swing towards the vehicle so it can use its binocular vision to see it more clearly (Evans, 2005).

Perceptions of other road users are considered fundamental to perception of risk, specifically making an attribution about how much skill, ability and control an individual has as a road user (Musselwhite et al., 2010a,b). Studies of cyclists have found that drivers perceive certain types of cyclist. for example, everyday cyclists, men and those that wear helmets as being more experienced and hence more predictable (Basford et al., 2002) and it has subsequently been found that driver’s treat them with less caution and afford them less room on the road (Walker, 2007). It follows that drivers may also make similar assumptions about different types of horse rider depending on whether they are an adult or child, what they are wearing and their use of safety equipment. Hence, drivers who perceive horse riders have a high degree of control over their animals are likely to think an encounter with a horse is not especially risky.

Affect can influence road user behaviour. For example, frustration to being held-up by slower moving road users, such as horses, can create a negative effect on driver behaviour (Fuller et al., 2008). It is considered that drivers may have high levels of skill and ability when encountering horses but still behave in a risky manner as a result of frustration and annoyance. Such feelings can be exasperated by two further affective emotional elements. First, how far the road user shows empathy towards another user; that is how far they are motivated to see the road use from another road user’s perspective (Batson and Shaw, 1991). According to social identity theory (Tajfel and Turner 1979, 1986) people tend to see the in group, to which they belong, in a more positive light than the out group, to which they do not belong (Gatersleben and Haddad 2010). Individuals are therefore more likely to demonstrate empathy if they believe they are similar to the person they are interacting with (Passer and Smith, 2008). Secondly, how far the individual is a viewed as a legitimate road user is also critical in such perceptions. Basford et al (2002) found that cyclists were not perceived to be high on most drivers’ road user hierarchy due to their smaller size and lack of speed and may therefore be treated with less care and consideration than other road users. Negative driver attitudes towards cyclists have been linked to perceptions that cyclists do not wear the correct safety gear (Musselwhite et al 2010b) and were not obliged to financially contribute to the road usage (no road tax, no insurance) (Basford et al., 2002). Horse riders share many qualities with cyclists in that they are legally permitted to use public roads but have no direct financial obligation to do so and generally can be assumed to travel slower than both vehicles and maximum permitted speed limits.

Drivers with dual experience of driving cars and riding motorcycles have greater empathy for and more positive attitudes towards motorcyclists (Crundall et al., 2008b). Dual drivers and drivers with relatives or close friends who motorcycle have been found to be less likely to be responsible for car-motorcycle accidents (Brooks and Guppy, 1990, Crundall et al., 2008a Magazzu et al., 2006). Drivers who are also cyclists have been found to have a better understanding of cycle related traffic scenarios (Basford et al., 2002). How far this relates to drivers and horse riding is explored in this paper.

Driver encounters with vulnerable road users are therefore subject to hazard and risk perception which seems to be further mediated through emotions and empathy. Hence, the research looked at how far these relationships exist in the context of driver-horse encounters on the road.

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