Complacency mars the road safety record

One of the rare targets on transport which the government seems to have met unequivocally.

Is the reduction in deaths and serious injuries on the roads. On the face of it, the figures are excellent. The first targets, established in 1987, were met and the government is well on the way towards meeting the second set, which were to reduce deaths by 40 per cent and serious injuries by 50 per cent from the baseline average between 1994-8. By 2007, the first had almost been met, while the second has already been exceeded.

Yet, the Commons Transport Committee has published a highly critical report on the government’s road safety record, with a title that says it all: Ending the scandal of complacency: road safety. The analysis in the report starts from the other end of the story. Even with these improvements, there are still nearly 3,000 deaths annually on the roads. There are some chilling statistics. Road deaths are the largest single cause of death for people between the ages of 5 and 35. That is truly remarkable and should be unacceptable in a modern society, and yet in every country of the world there is a similar annual toll. Britain is near the top of the European league on safety but nevertheless the death rate, particularly among poor child pedestrians (20 times more likely to die than rich ones) is shameful. Millions are spent on reducing the death rate of children from disease and yet little attention is paid to the tragedy of death on the roads. In a telling sentence, the committee says: ‘It is inconceivable that any transport system invented today would be accepted, no matter what its benefits, if it involved this level of carnage.’

That is the right point to start. It is noticeable that the three other main modes of passenger transport in the UK have become virtually accident free. In aviation, there has not been a single crash to a major reputable airline since a United Airlines Airbus went down in New York shortly after 9/11. All the recent accidents have been to charter flights or scheduled airlines operating in zones with a poor safety record, notably Russia and Africa.

Similarly, the number of deaths of passengers on the railways which has already gone down in every decade since the war is now almost statistically zero. There has been one passenger fatality in a rail accident since the Potters Bar crash in 2002, the woman killed in the Grayrigg train crash just over a year ago. As for ferries, the last major incident, albeit a huge one, was the Herald of Free Enterprise over twenty years ago.

The explanation for these reductions that there is a completely different approach in these industries towards safety. It is not, as with road deaths, a matter of patching on safety requirements to a dangerous activity, but rather, a root and branch approach that has made a step change in the casualty rate. There have been a few technical improvements which have helped, such as the Train Protection and Warning System on the railways which has greatly reduced the number of signals passed at danger, and similarly, the aviation industry has universally adopted TCAS, the Traffic Collision Avoidance system, which makes mid air collisions far less likely, as well as devices which reduce the risk from human factors such as pilot error.

The committee suggests that this holistic approach should be adopted for the roads. Whereas having targets for reducing casualties is laudable, a real strategy of ending this carnage requires far more. The committee recommends that there should be a new approach ‘underpinned by a strategy that explains how casualty reduction, danger reduction and the various other important policy objectives, such as a sustainable transport system, economic efficiency, climate change, social inclusion and physical health are integrated.’

This is interesting stuff. Too often policy on road design and engineering have been left to highways engineers who have been set narrow targets on safety and on maintaining traffic flows without any wider societal perspective. My personal bugbear is the pedestrian barriers which prevent people walking in straight lines across my local main road. But there are countless other examples.

It may seem paradoxical that the committee then suggests a tough casualty target of reducing deaths to below1,000 by 2030. But the crucial point is that this cannot be done without a much more radical series of measures than simply improving road design and driver education.

Both Sweden and the Netherlands have adopted policies that go far beyond simple casualty reduction. In Sweden there is a zero tolerance policy while the Dutch have a ‘sustainable safety’ vision which informs all decisions on road design and use. If an enlightened local authority wants to make its mark, it should adopt such an approach by becoming a test bed for this strategy even before it is adopted by central government.

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