Neil Arason, a Canadian road safety expert, shares his thoughts on a Nat’l Traffic Safety Ombudsman

I asked Neil Arason, a Canadian road safety expert, about his thoughts on the idea of a Traffic Safety Ombudsman. This is what he shared with me. . .

Hi, Marianne,

I think what you do right now is very close to that of an ombudsman.  I can’t tell you how critical it is to have safety advocates. Most changes happen because of them.

If I think of good examples of road safety advocacy, they include people like you, and also Clarence Ditlow.  Government needs to know people are watching them, and advocates do a good job of getting issues out into the mainstream media and that is extraordinarily powerful and important.

An office of the ombudsman would be similar to an advocacy centre except typically it is an arm of government, albeit one that has some independence.  We need to have safety advocates who are completely independent and powerful, and then on top of that as many other tools and structures for change.

I think that a traffic safety ombudsman would be one more thing that would help the overall cause. Because it is essentially an arm of government, however, it will likely be much more difficult to set up, whereas Ralph Nader just went ahead and set up the Center for Automotive Safety (directed by Clarence Ditlow), and that was that. (Although Nader had some startup capital from events that began in the late 1960s.)

Nonetheless, anyone can get into the business of advocacy and set up a centre or whatever they end up calling it.  Advocacy groups work toward wholesale change in the very way that road safety is treated, the priority given to it, etc.

The ombudsman type offices, I am aware of, exist so that folks can take complaints to them, and then the Ombudsman (and its paid staff) investigate those complaints with a view to resolving them. The ombudsman works to ensure “fairness” really in decision-making. I’m not aware of any examples of how an ombudsman would work in traffic safety because I am not aware of such a function today.

When people have complaints about some road safety failure, they largely take them to lawyers it seems. I am aware of examples of the role of the ombudsman in other government sectors like income assistance, where a citizen makes a complaint and goes to the ombudsman. This works well because the government agency really stands up and notices when they get a call from the office of the ombudsman, and they really make an effort to resolve the issue.

A traffic safety ombudsman could investigate complaints with a view to making large policy changes.  I would imagine that many victims’ families have no idea at first how to navigate the system. Access to an ombudsman could not just help to investigate their complaint for them, but could give them all manner of advice about where to go and what to do, e.g., use a lawyer, go to media, lobby directly, point them to various agencies for help, etc., etc.

Imagine if the ombudsman had people like you who could share with them what they know about how to get things done. The ombudsman could, I suppose, be a bit of an “information broker” in addition to its role as complaint investigator.  Such an office might help people to direct their energies in ways that will do the most amount of good.

I’m no expert on any of this, that is for sure, Marianne.  The only thing I know, from my own experience, is that almost all changes come from outside government and from advocates, lobbyists and the media.  These are the powers that governments all around the world seem to respond to. To follow then, we need as many mechanisms as possible to support more lobbyists, advocates, and media to focus on road safety.  An ombudsman would help enormously with that.

I hope some of this helps in some way.


Thank you


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