Bringing rally safety into the spotlight

Published on Friday July 28 2017

The Fatal Accident Investigation into the Snowman and Jim Clark Rallies began in Edinburgh last week – and it began at a time when all aspects of safety in the sport are under the spotlight.

Robert Reid has a unique insight into the sport; since winning the World Rally Championship with Richard Burns in 2001, he has been chairman of the stewards on WRC rounds and, in the wake of those two crashes, the Scottish Government asked Reid to join its Motorsport Event Safety Revue (MESR).

Here Reid throws light on the dilemma our sport faces in what will be a crucial few weeks in the Scottish capital.

Fatal Accident Enquiry is underway in Scotland. Pic: Press Association

It’s sobering to think that just a few hundred meters from where I live in Edinburgh a Fatal Accident Inquiry is currently picking our sport to bits and challenging all the commonly held beliefs of what is and isn’t acceptable practice.

Whatever our views on how and why the tragic accidents on the Snowman and Jim Clark Rallies happened, the cold, hard facts are that members of the public went out to enjoy a day’s rallying and never returned home.

While spectator safety on rallies is not an issue unique to Scotland or the UK, eyes from all around the world will be on Edinburgh for the next few weeks. 

Over the years, I’ve been involved in motorsport in many different roles and each has had its own perspective on spectator safety.

As a competitor – both amateur and professional – I’ve rallied in many different countries and many different cultures. I’ve experienced first-hand the days of ‘passionate’ spectators lining the stages and the road opening up as they step back in front of you.

As a paid professional you were expected to just get on with it and often any protestation fell on deaf ears. That didn’t mean we just accepted everything and I well remember being hauled in front of the stewards on one occasion for refusing to start a stage without another course car after a lengthy delay while hundreds of frustrated spectators were walking out through the stage start. Thankfully now there is a regulation stating a maximum delay before the need for another course car. 

As chairman of the WRC Stewards the thought of having to deal with a spectator tragedy was never far from my mind. Watching live stages from the Stewards’ Room was particularly nerve-wracking and your heart always sank when the stage was stopped for a spectator incident.

WRC fans have huge passion, but must spectate sensibly. Pic: Mcklein-imagedatabase

Almost every night [then safety delegate Jacek] Bartos would come back to HQ with a concerning picture of what he’d seen: a guy perched on top of a fencepost on the apex of a sixth-gear corner and an FIA accredited photographer moving from a jump only to have the next competitor land right where they’d been standing moments earlier. It was always a great relief when an event finished without incident.

As a spectator, I always seem to want to stand further back than 99 per cent of the other folk there and my escape route from that place is always well planned. I’ve witnessed a photographer being hit on the inside of a corner and seen far too many near-misses in my time. Perhaps it’s the fact I know first-hand what can happen to a rally car when it all goes wrong. That, and a good imagination, ensures my instinct for self-preservation remains high.

When I accepted the invitation to the Motorsport Event Safety Review (MESR), I joined other representatives from the sport, members from Scottish and local government, Police Scotland and the Health and Safety Executive.

It really makes you think when people from outside our sport ask questions like: “So, you are telling us there is no compulsory training programme for marshals?” or: “How can anyone think it’s safe to allow spectators onto a live stage to push a car back onto the road?” We took so much for granted, but since the MESR the MSA has implemented 29 objectives set by the commission as part of its Rally Future spectator safety campaign.

One of those recommendations was to have a safety delegate on each event and I performed that role on the Scottish Rally. It was pretty daunting to take the responsibility of giving the clerk of the course the green light to run a stage from a spectator safety perspective. What became obvious to me very quickly was that events need support to come up to the standard and not just someone to mark their efforts on the day and give them a yes or no.

Thankfully spectator safety has got much better in many cases, although the expectation has also been raised. At one point it was difficult to imagine ever managing to control the spectators and rally again in Fafe, but just look how good Rally Portugal is now after a lot of hard work.

What is clear to me is that spectator safety is a mission, not a job title. 

Rally Poland was another bad example of spectator behaviour.

After seeing how close the battle was at last month’s Rally Poland, I was shocked when I finally sat down to watch the TV coverage. In fact, I couldn’t watch it – it looked like an accident waiting to happen.

The World Rally Championship needs to ensure its events are safe not only because a serious incident involving spectators would be unthinkable, but also because of the example it sets to the rest of the sport.

How can spectators be persuaded to stand in safe, designated zones on national and regional events when they see others on TV at a WRC event standing right by the side of the road just after a jump and ignoring marshals’ instructions?

Every year the FIA descends on 13 countries and each and every one of those rally weeks is an opportunity for the governing body to not only demonstrate best practice, but also impart knowledge and teach those 13 ASNs how to do what they do.

It’s the old adage, isn’t it… give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.

We need the FIA to use these opportunities, not just parachute in, direct operations and leave. One of the primary benefits of having a WRC round should be the drip-down effect in not just safety, but in every aspect of running a rally.

I’m not sure we see that at the moment.

From a spectator’s perspective, what’s needed is a change of culture, and that culture change isn’t going to come overnight. It’s really important this is led not imposed, to be bottom-up as well as top-down.

Spectators need to learn that if they don’t help the organisers and marshals by policing themselves and their peers then stages will be cancelled and events removed from the championship. And maybe that’s something we need to see more of.

For me, Kris Meeke summed up the drivers’ view best when he said: “The best way for spectators to see great action and help the drivers is to stand in safe places so we don’t get distracted or even worse have to alter our line or lift off.”

That way, the drivers remains committed and spectacular and the fans get to see the crews and cars on the limit from a sensible spot.

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