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.

  • Ian B

    As long as we have police who are directed at speed enforcement and the revenue it accrues rather than policing the appalling levels of driver incompetence, then we will continue to have this carnage. Issue appropriate penalties for dangerous driving, enforce driving bans, confiscate vehicles, order re-tests, introduce mandatory jail sentences for those who cause death by dangerous driving, use technology to identify bad driving – there’s enough cctv around these days. It’s not rocket science. But don’t blame the engineers FFS.

  • Colin Wells

    · If we compare the amounts of money spent on rail/air passenger safety with that spent on road safety we will see that our society puts a very low value on the lives of people who travel on roads and those who have to make their way across them, such as pedestrians and cyclists, and an extremely high value on the lives of air and rail travellers.

    · Roads would cost the taxpayer far more if the same safety standards were applied to them as apply to railways. Railways are very safe. Roads kill about nine people every day –around 3000 per year – the same as the number killed in the twin towers on 9/11. Thousands more are badly injured.

    · If we valued all human lives equally, whether they be road users or rail passengers, would the roads be cheaper to build and operate with all the additional signalling equipment, sophisticated roadside and in-vehicle devices to control speed and prevent vehicles colliding with each other, much higher degree of separation of pedestrians/cyclists from vehicles, staffing of control centres and extra policing, not to mention longer and more rigorous examinations for those wishing to drive? Of course there would be a revolution – Jeremy Clarkson would organise a march – sorry – a drive to Parliament to demand freedom for motorists to kill and injure themselves and their fellow human beings! The newspapers would “rail” against the imposition of additional controls as they do now against the provision of a few speed cameras! Why do we put such a high value on the life and well being of rail/air travellers yet ignore the thousands of people slaughtered and maimed on our roads?

  • Yes, it’s true. The Netherlands is much better in this regard. Children have a freedom of movement which is simply unknown these days in the UK, and they can do this in much greater safety. Our kids have a far greater freedom to travel on their own than they ever did when we lived in the UK.

    The infrastructure is the key. How it’s designed changes how people behave. As well as being very safe, there is also a high level of subjective safety designed into the layouts of roads, pavements and cyclepaths which results in people being far more likely to walk or cycle in the first place.

  • Brian Heard

    The main difference between safety levels of rail/air/sea on one hand and road on the other is, surely, that the former are all controlled by professional “drivers” who have been trained and are disciplined to control their vehicles in a safe manner, while road users mostly are not. Whilst all road drivers must pass a test, they are able, on passing, to drive as they want – well or badly. Even more at risk is the pedestrian road user who, except perhaps while at school, receives no training whatever. The 5-year-old child who chases a ball into the road almost certainly has no trigger in his mind that says “Stop! Look!” as no-one has put one there.

    Short of complete segregation of road vehicles and pedestrians, plus a lot of in-built automatic vehicle controllers, some not even invented yet, I see no hope of seriously reducing the dreadful present carnage.

  • Jeremy Gill

    Lets face it most of the benefits in road safety over the last few decades have been in vehicle design – protecting vehicle occupants. Whilst this has reduced the rates for occupants it does little to reduce accidents involving other road users, pedestrians and cyclists, most of whom have simply be scared off the roads altogether.
    I think it is worth re-considering road user priorities in urban areas, I think pedestrians should have priority over cyclists who in turn should have priority over cars. This would encourage people out of their cars and reclaim the streets for more sustainable forms of transport. It would also shift the psychology of car driving in urban areas from one of aggressive road ownership to being a passive borrower.

  • And as many London boroughs- such as Southwark – move to 20mph limits on all their roads, it’s time to send Transport for London the bill for the much higher casualty rates on their 50% faster 30mph trunk roads that run through such boroughs. Only then will TfL understand the true cost of their very odd need for speed.

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  • Chris Sharp

    Nearly twenty years ago I had lunch with one of the signaling boffins at the Railway Technical Centre in Derby. He put forward this theory.

    The railways are too safe. We should half the amount of money we spend on railway safety and aim to kill 30 or so people a year. The money saved should go directly to reducing fares making it much cheaper to travel by train. This would increase the number of people traveling by train with the knock on effect of reducing the number of people on the roads. Less people on the roads means less crashes and a saving of a lot more than 30 lives on the road every year.

    It is a fascinating ethical argument which I’ve discussed with many people over the years, is it right to kill people on the railways to save lives on the roads?

  • During my experience of riding shotgun in wagons since I was 13, then driving wagons for a living 300K Km a year for 15 years, plus my subsequent car driving following other people making a total of over 30 years on the road. I have noticed that there is something funny about the actions of some drivers. The key to this was a past older friend who was not very good at seeing and freaked out if you drove him as a passenger above 30 Mph. Obviously he didn’t drive himself although he once had a probably illegal small 120cc motor-bike for a short time. According to the latest statistics there are 20% of drivers who would fail the eyesight test on the roads today. With not looking being the greatest alleged cause of accidents, perhaps many of these accidents are avoidable if you root out those who actually can’t see to look properly.

    One may be asking how these potentially blind drivers manage to keep on the roads and get from A to B, but its a simple case of finding your way from point to point at a given speed. It was normally the case that dense fog would not significantly slow my progress along the A59 on the way to Skipton at 5 AM in the morning. It was simply a case of learning the route at a said speed / time, the only time you had to slow down was when you had to slow down for any other traffic and get temporarily lost. Then it was just a case of finding the next fixed recognised point on the road and carrying along as usual. It is probably the case that people slamming on the brakes when they get ” lost ” on motorways in fog causes major accidents. My mum was totally blind for the last few years of her life and could easily navigate around our home like a sighted person just so long a the furniture was not moved. If any strangers came in they did not realise she was blind unless she told them. Before she went blind she was an excellent driver.

    Potentially blind drivers may be driving around in the equivalent of dense fog at all times. They normally travel at about 40 Mph everywhere, ( any slower and they know they would stick out like a sore thumb ) and usually have a very long queue behind them on roads with a faster speed limit. It is usually the case that the diver causing the queue is fitted with ” Jam Jar ” spectacles when you finally pass them on a dual carriageway. Blind drivers are also easy to spot when they stop on the line at roundabouts when all those in the following usual queue can see that the road is clear to proceed. I believe that accidents caused by cars stopping unexpectedly at roundabouts have significantly increased over the past few years. Although some could be due to insurance scams, I suspect that more are caused by blind drivers stopping for no good reason.

    By now you may be asking why the government has not introduced annual eye-sight testing for all drivers considering all the other measures it passes allegedly in the interest of road safety. Perhaps the simple fact is that the government actually like lots of road accidents just so long as they don’t kill the wage slaves. With disability benefits generally low and relatively difficult to claim the government has nothing to loose by crippling quite a few people every year. Accidents generate a lot of tax revenue in VAT etc. plus the blind drivers are far more likely to be caught by a speed camera in a 30 limit, so plenty of extra revenue from speeding fines. The government also benefits from the extra congestion caused by blind drivers, more in fuel tax and now they are considering congestion charging nationwide. Perhaps it should be up to the insurance companies to require all drivers to produce evidence of good eye-sight when they apply for their new policy each year, perhaps they could offer a discount if one did this. Once again its a case of money comes first, more insurance claims and people with speed camera convictions means higher prices for policies and as third party insurance is a legal requirement to drive they can charge whatever they want.

    You also have to ask where the majority of the high profile road safety lobby are when it comes to eye-sight testing, plenty of ban this cut that but not a word on probably one of the most important factors for road safety. The simple truth is that high profile road safety groups like Brake are generally funded by the motor industry itself, and therefore campaigning for the introduction of a measure which could cut 20% of their sponsors best customers is out of the question.

    It would be fairly easy to organise a simple but effective eye-sight testing facility at GP’s health centres in the treatment room. The test could be on a walk in basis and free to the user and carried out by a member of the nursing staff. Perhaps the test could be phased in starting with older drivers then rolled out to cover everyone with a driving licence around their birthday.

    BBC Action Network Blog Response

    I couldn’t agree more.

    You have accurately described my (now deceased) father.

    Suffering from macular degeneration, and repeatedly arriving home complaining of how foggy it was (on a clear day) he only decided to stop driving after three crashes into parked cars (no injuries thankfully) and when the compulsory eye test (at eighty, I think) was due.

    Being in a car with him was terrifying to the extreme. My mother refused to go out with him. He would simply pull out at roundabouts with a belligerent “they’ll get out of my way”. He really had no idea if something was coming or not.

    It is insane to allow people to drive in this state of health and as my selfish father proved – you cannot rely on people to police themselves.”
    By susan crowe in Bromley – on 10 Jan 2007 at 14:32

    Incidentally I believe that you get a free bus pass if you fail the driving eye test

  • Colin Wells

    You claim that society is not spending enough on ” road safety ” but you have missed the hidden cost to society represented by the increased cost of the fuel used by road vehicles due to alleged safety measures. Traffic calming or any other engineered slowing from the posted speed limit doubles fuel consumption from the point of braking to the end of accelerating. A typical smallish diameter roundabout installed in a trunk road will cause each HGV to use up to an extra litre of fuel, that’s a quid for every lorry which passes over it. It could be said that traffic lights would be more fuel efficient for heavier through traffic, but the Eco-fascists always trot out the ” traffic lights use electricity ” line. This is true but when you compare a few hundred watts to the hundreds of Kilowatts of average HGV being unnecessarily wasted in the interest of the feckless and blind drivers likely to kill themselves at such junctions. To save the planet all more recent roundabouts need to revert to their original ” give way ” with perhaps part time traffic lights for busy periods when it would be difficult to get out of a side road.