If you live in or have traveled to the USA, you may have heard the slogan, “If you see something, say something”. This phrase was coined by the Department of Homeland Security in an effort to fight terrorism by encouraging the public to report suspicious behavior or circumstances. When I heard about the cancellation of SS14 today, I again began to reflect on the issues of spectator safety in rallying. It has been a hot topic that has resurfaced again and again over the course of the WRC season. The initial knee-jerk reaction is to look to the organizers for an answer. Why didn’t they do a better job of controlling the spectators in order to prevent cancellation of the stage? While the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the rally does lie in the hands of the organizers, it may be time for rally fans to take ownership of this issue as well.
No matter how many marshals you put on the stage, and no matter how many “0” cars you run through, there will still be a small minority who will continue to misbehave. At a major international event such as a WRC or ERC rally, the number of spectators will always vastly outnumber those entrusted with the task of keeping them safe. In Rally Argentina, the local government bussed hundreds of police officers up into the mountains, and even that wasn’t enough to prevent an incident. I am full of admiration for the organizers of Rally Poland to have the guts to pull the plug on SS14 when they deemed it unsafe. They have a host of pressures on them from all sides: WRC Promoters, the local sponsors, the competing teams, and the spectators. Each of these entities have different priorities that must be weighed and balanced when making a decision about canceling a special stage. Even though they knew it would be an unpopular choice, they made the difficult but correct decision. I truly believe that most of the time, rally organizers are doing their very best, but things may have reached the point where they need some “grassroots” support.
We now live in an age where the general public is tremendously empowered to influence rally safety decisions. The widespread availability of mobile data and internet devices allows information to flow in real-time from the roadside of a special stage. As responsible and knowledgeable rally spectators, we now have the platform to make a difference when we see unsafe behavior. For the first time ever, when we see something, we CAN say something. If rally organizers are willing to embrace the technology and involve the fans in the safety process, we as a rally community can take ownership of protecting the sport that we love so much. How many times have we seen stupid spectators hide when the safety cars come through and then pop out and stand in unsafe locations when the stage goes hot? It frustrates me to no end when I see it. As a community, if we can threaten these individuals with the very real possibility of being reported to the organizers and stage cancellation, I truly believe that it would lead to behavior modification. Whether it occurs through Twitter, SMS text, or good old fashioned mobile phone calls, the infrastructure is in place for us to make a difference. All we need now is an organized platform to disseminate this information in real-time.
As much as I applaud the Rally Poland organizers for making the difficult but right decision, I do wish they did one thing differently. Instead of running the cars through the canceled stage at road speed as was done in Monte Carlo, the crews were diverted by an alternate route past SS14 onto the next special stage. I understand that this was to prevent delays and to keep the rally on schedule, but I think that this unjustly punishes the people who came out to the stage and were behaving properly. If I were spectating on SS14, I would have at least wanted the chance to see the cars go past even if it was at road speed. It wouldn’t have delayed the rally by that much time to do this, and at least the fans would have gotten some photo opportunities. With the heavy traffic in the area of the rally, those fans may not have had the chance to re-locate to another stage in time to see the cars in action today.
In conclusion, fellow rally enthusiasts, rallying is OUR sport! Let’s take ownership of protecting what we love so much. Rally organizers, know that there are a huge amount of responsible people out there who care enough about rallying to behave properly and make a difference. If they are empowered to have a part in the safety process, I truly believe that they can be trusted to do so. While canceling stages is sometimes necessary, it will always be a reactionary solution. We are living in a unique time where by working together, we can come up with some proactive solutions as well.