Road safety policy in the UK is at a crossroads and is set to become an area of political conflict. Road safety was undoubtedly one of the success areas of the target-obsessed New Labour government where as the result of imposing demanding targets and having a clear strategy to achieve them, casualties have been drastically reduced. Now, however, with targets having become a taboo word for David Cameron, cuts by the new government in the provision for road safety improvements on the highways and the antagonism towards speed cameras, there is uncertainty about whether the momentum of reducing the toll on the roads can be maintained. Indeed, road safety campaigners are worried that the gains of the past couple of decades may be lost in what is becoming a highly charged political controversy.
The figures for the past couple of decades are genuinely impressive. When the Conservative roads minister Peter Bottomley first announced targets for reducing road casualties in 1987, the numbers being killed and injured on the roads had stopped declining. Seat belt and drink driving legislation had cut the number of deaths from nearly 8,000 in the bad old days of the sixties when people were happy to totter out of pubs, car key in hand, but the death toll in the eighties was remaining stubbornly above the 5,000 mark. For the first time, Bottomley put road safety on the political agenda. Until then the death toll had been accepted as a price worth paying for the benefits of mass car ownership. There was barely any analysis of the cause of accidents and driver education was unheard of, while children were treated to the
Green Cross Code and the Tufty Club which put the onus on them, rather than drivers, to prevent accidents.
The Bottomley initiative, the first time targets had been imposed on any government policy, led to a radical shift in attitude towards the toll on the roads. His initial target was to reduce the number of casualties by a third by 1990 and this was met, with the death toll falling from 5,125 in 1987 to 3,409 in 1990, a fall of precisely 33 per cent. For every death, however, there are around eight to ten seriously injured, and therefore this reduction was highly significant, affecting literally hundreds of thousands of families in a ten year period.
Bottomley’s initiative, though, had a longer term impact since it meant the concept of targets was now accepted. In 2000, the Labour Government set a new target for a reduction in the number of casualties in road accidents. By 2010 the aim was to achieve, compared with the average for 1994-98, a 40 per cent reduction in the number of people killed or seriously injured with a higher target, 50 per cent for children, and a 10 per cent reduction in the slight casualty rate.
This was met by 2008, two years early and the death toll of 2,222 was the lowest since records began in 1926 (when incidentally there were nearly 5,000 deaths but fewer than two million motorists compared with 34 million today). Malcolm Bulpitt, who has worked on improving road safety since the 70s, reckons it is a combination of factors that have led to this success: ‘The targets were important, but so were a lot of other measures: speed cameras, traffic calming, road safety audits and so on. It is not enough to have a target, you need a strategy to go with it and that is what has happened.’
However, the new government has given every indication of eschewing both targets and strategies. David Cameron is particularly hostile to the very notion of targets, as is clear from a recent speech: ‘If you want to set targets, set new controls, impose new rules, don’t bother because you’re likely to get the red light.’
Road safety is the responsibility of Mike Penning, a right wing Tory who, in announcing the decision to end central funding of speed cameras, said: ‘This is another example of this Government delivering on its pledge to end the war on the motorist.’ As a result, local authorities such as Oxfordshire are turning off all their speed cameras.
Asked for a statement from Mr Penning on government strategy, the Department for Transport was only able to produce the blandest response: ‘road safety remains a priority and we are currently reviewing all road safety policies as well as looking at the most effective way to measure progress. We have also already taken steps to develop drug screening technology to make it easier for the police to prosecute drug drivers and we are working on a campaign targeted at children in areas with high casualty rates to help youngsters be safer on the roads.’
The government has, too, cut a £38m provision in the transport budget for small schemes at hotspots – the new name for blackspots. Mr Bulpitt says this is very shortsighted: ‘These schemes target places where there have been several fatalities or serious injuries, and the benefits are enormous. Typically you see a reduction of 50 per cent in casualties’. He points out that the benefits far outweigh the cost. A fatality is costed in government figures at £1.6m and a serious injury at £200,000 and typically these schemes save twice their cost in the first year.
The ending of direct support to camera schemes and the cutting back of road safety provision has been put forward under the guise of giving local authorities more freedom but with local authority budgets being cut back in numerous other ways, there is little doubt that far less money will be spent on road safety than in recent years. Mr Bulpitt says that, for example, safety audits, which are optional for small road schemes and only cost a few thousand pounds, are no longer being carried out in many areas, posing a risk that poorly-designed changes to the road network are being introduced. If road deaths start to rise again as a result of the change in strategy – or rather the apparent absence of one – then road safety may become, for the first time, a political issue which will be ironic given that it was a Tory minister, Peter Bottomley, who did so much to our roads safer.
Different countries have distinctive driving styles and culture but these are not fixed and are open to influence which is where education campaigns play a key role. France, for example, has dramatically reduced the number of road deaths in recent years through a combination of enforcement and education. Young drivers, motorcyclists and drink drivers have been specifically targeted and the latest figures – for June – suggest deaths and serious injuries are down by nearly a fifth from last year.
All over Europe, targets on casualty reduction are being used in conjunction with education campaigns to reduce the toll on the roads. In many respects, they are catching up with Britain which, along with Sweden and Netherlands, has the best record on road safety in Europe. Indeed, in Britain there has been a similar success story with drink driving since the 1970s with the number of people killed or seriously injured as a result of drink-driving falling from 10,000 in 1980 to just over 2,000.
More important than the mere statistics, however, is the transformation in attitude. Drink driving became unacceptable and a pub landlord today is as likely to say ‘have one for the road, sir’ as ‘drinks are all on the house tonight’. Young people really do, as the ads recommend, choose a non-drinking driver for their nights out in the pubs and clubs, and drink-driving is generally seen as ‘uncool’, although there remains a minority who, despite the change in culture, disregard the law.
There are still 430 deaths per year, a fifth of the total, in which drink driving plays a role and there are still two drink driving campaigns every year, but road campaigners are now largely focusing on the other big area where significant reductions in the rate of casualties could be achieved if public perception could be changed: speed.
Convincing the public of the dangers of driving too fast, in the same way that they have been persuaded that drink driving is daft, would be the biggest source of success for road safety. While campaigners such as the nebulous Association of British Drivers question the role of speed in causing accidents by suggesting it only plays a role in a small proportion, a careful examination of the statistics shows this is not the case. The 2008 statistics, the latest detailed ones available, for example show that speed above the limit or excessive speed were mentioned by the reporting police as a contributory cause in 28 per cent of accidents (more than one cause can be given so there may be some overlap and anti-camera groups therefore often suggest that only one in seven accidents are speed related). However, there are numerous other contributory causes that involve speed, such as ‘loss of control’ mentioned in 32 per cent of fatalities and ‘careless, reckless or in a hurry’ (17 per cent).
Julie Townsend of Brake reckons the role of speed is crucial: ‘Speed is a contributor to a majority of crashes. If you think about it, in most cases if people were going slower they could either avoid the crash or suffer less injury if they cannot.’
Speed, therefore, has become the focus of most road safety work but efforts to educate drivers are constantly undermined by the likes of Top Gear, fantasy car ads and flash motors owned by sports stars. When Richard Hammond recovered from a near fatal crashed after he lost control of the jet propelled dragster he was driving, Top Gear ironically screened a message saying ‘Speed Kills’. With that type of culture to contend with, educators have a tough task in persuading young people of the dangers of driving too fast.
That culture has permeated thinking in the Conservative party which campaigned on a promise to end central funding of speed cameras, a promise which the coalition has now carried out. In announcing the withdrawal of funding, Mike Penning the road safety minister, said that local authorities had ‘relied too heavily on safety cameras for far too long’ but research suggests these are more effective in reducing speeds than, for example, advisory signs which flash up the motorists’ speed as they pass.
Already counties such as Oxfordshire and Wiltshire have turned off their cameras, unwilling to continue paying for them without central funding. Yet, the evidence that cameras improve road safety is very solid despite the doubts sown by the Clarksonistas. A host of studies undertaken on behalf of the Department for Transport, over the past fifteen years which makes clear that the evidence is irrefutable with, typically a reduction of at least a third in casualties at camera sites. The House of Commons Transport Committee which examined the issue in 2006 reported any doubt about the value of cameras was ‘bewildering’ and concluded: ‘Well placed cameras bring tremendous safety benefits at excellent cost-benefit ratios. A more cost effective measure for reducing speeds and casualties has yet to be introduced. An increase in safety camera coverage would be supported by evidence, as well as public opinion.’
The police are so convinced of the value of speed cameras that they have gone public on the issue. Mick Giannasi, the chief constable of Gwent, has written to Mr Penning pointing out that casualties had fallen by a half in the county in eight years. He told the Today programme: ‘The evidence is that road safety camera partnerships have achieved significant reductions in road casualties over the last decade.’ Moreover, the public, despite the tabloids’ campaign, appears to accept the value of speed cameras with 82 per cent approving them.
Nevertheless, the government appears to be influenced by ‘evidence’ from the small but vociferous anti-camera lobby and that is troubling organisations like BRAKE
What most worries the campaigners is that the government, by using the language of the ‘war on the motorist’ and sabotaging the funding of speed cameras, is creating a climate on road safety issue which will make it more difficult to educate drivers on the dangers of speed. Presenting speed cameras as part of ‘the war on the motorist’ sends a subconscious message to motorists that speeding is really OK and that will feed through to behaviour on the roads. As Julie Townsend put it, ‘We are contending with voices in the public domain that imply that the freedom of the individual driver is more important than the responsibility to look after yourself and other road users’.
Iain Dale, the Conservative blogger and broadcaster, was very sceptical when he was forced to go on a course for speeding motorists in order to save his driving licence. The three points he would have totted up for going 37 mph up Brixton Hill early one morning would have taken him over his points limit but people who are caught in 30mph zones are offered the chance of going on a course instead.
He recalls: ‘I thought it would be a waste of time but it was better than losing my licence’. In fact, Mr Dale came away impressed and thought the courses should be taught universally to learner drivers before they take to the roads. The course was run by a middle aged woman who said she never exceeded the speed limit. The attendees, who were not the boy racers Mr Dale had expected but ‘virtually all over 40’, were disbelieving until she explained that five years previously her 13 year old daughter had been hit by a car travelling at 37mph and was still receiving treatment for the injuries.
The key message Mr Dale took away was that whereas at 30 mph half of people hit by a car can expect to survive, at 40 only 10 per cent can: ‘So for every mile per hour over 30, the rate of death increases sharply’, he explains. ‘So yes, the course did have an impact on my behaviour and I became much more aware of what other people do, too’. He was also struck by the fact that everyone on the course thought that motorways were the source of many accidents whereas, in fact, they account for just 6 percent of fatalities even though they account for nearly a quarter of vehicle mileage.
Mr Dale had been opposed to speed cameras, and remains dubious about their value on dual carriageways where speeds are high anyway, but his view has somewhat changed: ‘I think they should all be relocated to urban areas where they can have a real impact in ensuring people stick to 30 mph and that will save lives’.
The Global Road Safety Partnership is a relatively new body created in 1999 by the World Bank and operating under the auspices of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, which promotes projects around the world on road safety. Andrew Pearce, its chief executive, is passionate about the issues and, particularly, about the lack of attention paid to an issue which he calls ‘an underfunded man-made crisis’ The Partnership has a budget of just $6bn but amazingly that is a third of the money spent by global organisations spent on road safety: ‘HIV Aids kills about two million people per year and gets $18bn – roads kill more than 1.2 million annually, that’s say a jumbo jet’s worth daily, and it gets just $18m.
Apart from the obvious task of raising awareness, the Partnership – which encompasses business, governments and civil society organisations – supports projects in the 25 countries in which it is now working. Dramatic results can be achieved by well-organised and relatively cheap processes. For example, on Sakhalin Island off the Pacific Coast of Russia, seat belt wearing went up from 3 per cent to 80 per cent through a concerted campaign of education and enforcement. In Brazil, where the Partnership is working with 20 cities, projects have shown that increased motorisation does not inevitably lead to more casualties on the roads. In São José dos Campos, for example, there was a 48 per cent reduction in casualties in a three year period thanks to a project, led by the mayor, to set targets and meet them through changing people’s behaviour and attitudes. In two cities in China, the rate of drink driving was cut by 65 per cent whereas it kept rising in a third city where there was no project. Mr Pearce says the processes are simple, but in need of money and political will: ‘There are five elements to improving road safety, and all of them can be used to bring down the casualty rate: road safety management, the roads themselves, the vehicles, people, of course and finally improving the trauma services’.
The key in all these projects is to obtain widespread support of people in the community to implement a series of small scale projects that ultimately aim to reduce deaths and serious injuries to zero.
Problem ignored world wide
It was not until 2004 that the idea of road safety as a public health issue began to gain credence with the publication of a World Health Organisation report on the subject. Since then, momentum has been gradually building up among international organisations about the death toll on the roads, partly because with the growth of motorisation, numbers are increasing rapidly.
Oddly, one of the leading organisations campaigning on the issue is the FIA Foundation, or to give its full name, the foundation of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, the governing body of world motor sport and the umbrella body for motoring organisations like the AA and RAC. David Ward, the director of the Foundation, sees no contradiction, however, because the construction of major road scheme in developing countries is being discredited by the awful death toll they bring in their wake.
Ward says the Foundation is keen to present the issue as one of sustainable development:’ With already 90 per cent of road deaths occurring in developing countries, this was clearly going to be exacerbated by further motorisation unless action is taken’. One shocking aspect of the situation uncovered by the campaign is that roads being funded by global agencies such as the World Bank take no account of the fact that an increase in casualties was inevitable because of the way they are designed: ‘Typically, they have no pavements and the broad tarmac divides the towns they go through, without the provision of a crossing point. Schools may be on one side of the road, while most people live on the other, and the result is inevitably a huge number of casualties’, says Ward.
The lack of pavements was relatively safe when traffic speeds were slow, but when a swathe of tarmac replaces a dirt road, and lorries thunder through built up areas, deaths become a daily occurrence.
The new Mombasa road which is the main trade route linking Nairobi with the coast is typical. Over the past five years Kenya has been redeveloping this road with assistance from international donors including the World Bank and Chinese Government. Now traffic flows at a much higher level than even a few years ago and on the stretches away from the centre vehicles are moving at relatively high speeds.
Mr Ward points out, that ‘however for hundreds of kilometres, there are no adequate road safety provisions. If you go down the 100 km from the town of Mlolongo to Sultan Hamud through several small towns there are no crossing points for pedestrians, and no pavements. There’s nothing to slow the traffic down near schools and business centres. There are also no crash barriers or even lane markings separating the traffic. The result is a very high rate of death and injury on this road – which could all be prevented if just a few simple safety measures were put in place’.
The centrepiece of the Make Roads Safe campaign, launched in 2006, is for the budget of all road schemes funded by development agencies to include a 10 per cent provision for road safety measures. This would pay for features such as pavements, barriers and crossings which, amazingly, are not usually included in such schemes but would make an enormous difference to the risks posed by the road. Mr Ward added: ’Of course it would be better if these features were built in from the start as part of the original design, but it does not actually cost that much to add them later. There is an established body of knowledge in the West of how to mitigate the death toll. What is lacking is the political will to use it worldwide. ’
Clocks change would save lives
With funding for road safety schemes being cut, campaigners are looking at other ways of reducing the death toll on the roads, and are trying to revive the idea of moving the clocks forward permanently by one hour. This would have the effect of making the evenings lighter in winter, particularly at the time children go back from school, but would also result in many people having to travel to work in the dark.
However, overall, the change would save lives. Although there would be a rise in casualties in the morning, this would be more than offset by the reduction in the evening. This was certainly the case when permanent summer time was introduced for a three year period in 1968 but despite this the trial was eventually scrapped because of opposition from sections of the workforce such as agricultural and postal workers who have to rise early.
The measure, according to an analysis by the Parliamentary Advisory Committee on Transport Safety, would save around 100 lives annually on the roads. The analysis suggests that this is because people, especially children, make more complex journeys in the evening, and drivers also perform less well because of tiredness. There also tend to be more people on the streets in the evening and pedestrian deaths traditionally tend to rise in October and November compared with the summer months
PACTS is trying to galvanise support for the measure, which has other advantages such as encouraging more people to go out on summer evenings and bringing British business hours in line with those in Europe, with the launch of a campaign for people to write to their MPs to lobby for the change. However, because the measure as acceding to Brussels, Europhiles are adamantly opposed to it and a succession of Private Members Bills have failed as a result. PACTS is convinced that this time, however, there is more chance of the legislation passing because of its undoubted economic benefits and a new Bill is scheduled for the next Parliament.
Horrific toll worldwide
The horrifying statistics on road deaths around the world are the flipside of the global obsession with car culture. The numbers are staggering. Overall, 1.3million people die on the roads annually, and these include a quarter of a million children, with road accidents now becoming the biggest cause of deaths for people under the age of 18.
Even these huge figures are likely to be underestimates as many deaths in low income countries go unreported. This is an issue of poverty. Just as in Britain, where poorer children are far more likely to be killed on the roads than their richer peers, most of this carnage is concentrated in developing countries that account for 90 per cent of deaths. The death toll ranks on a scale with the rate from malaria or tuberculosis and without preventative action is set even higher.
Deaths are just the tip of the iceberg. According to a spokesman for the Global Road Safety Partnership, created by the World Bank to address road safety issues in developing countries, ‘conservative estimates indicate that between 30 and 45 injuries occur annually for every road death’. Many of these involve permanent disability. Overall, in low and middle income countries, between 30 and 85 per cent of admissions to hospital for trauma injuries are for road accident victims, placing an enormous burden on the system.
The United Nations has been galvanised into action by the sheer scale of the toll and following pressure from the Make Roads Safe Campaign. This was created by the FIA Foundation in 2006 and now encompasses more than 150 industry organisations and NGOs. As a result, in 2009 the first ever United Nations Ministerial Conference on road safety was held in Moscow. The result has been a UN General Assembly resolution and next year, the official UN ‘decade of action’ on road safety will be launched.
The target on road deaths set in the UN’s ‘decade of action’ is relatively modest. The aim is not to reduce the number of deaths, or even stop it rising, but rather to halve the increase in the death toll which statisticians predict will come from the growth of car use across the world. However, even that target is significant as it would save an estimated five million lives over the space of the decade because, unchecked, the number of deaths annually is expected to rise to a staggering 2.4 million.
Both road builders and vehicle manufacturers are being targeted in the campaign. The UN says that ‘vehicle manufacturers have a responsibility to produce safe cars. They must meet this obligation, in every market.’ However, at the moment manufacturers produce cars to national standards which in some developing countries are far more lax than those in the West.
But will the UN efforts really lead to significant change? Critics of the UN have suggested that their efforts are concentrated on alleviating the effects of car culture, rather than challenging it. Moreover, even the UN pamphlet launching the campaign admits that most road schemes built with international aid money are designed with no consideration for safety (see adjoining article).
There are very complex issues involved. The simple fact of growth in the use of cars guarantees that the death toll will rise, especially in developing countries where the newly-motorised elite will scythe down poorer people still dependent on walking or cycling. This is what happened in the early days of motoring in Britain when, in the 1930s, there was a death toll nearly four times today’s with barely a tenth of the cars on the road. Remedial measures, such as better designed roads, can play some part but ultimately increased motorisation will lead to a rise in casualties but there are no suggestions that this should be slowed down or stopped.
Overall, it is estimated that road crashes in the developing world cost more than £100bn annually in terms of lost output, injury and death and other economic effects, just about the total which these countries receive in aid from the West.
Talking to teenagers
Getting the road safety message across to teenagers is no easy task but is probably the most important single way of ensuring road casualties keep going down. However, anything that sounds like the ‘olds’ lecturing about risks and dangers is certain to fall on deaf ears. Simply telling today’s teenagers about the dangers of driving too fast or the risks of getting in a car when the driver has quaffed half a dozen pints does not work.
BRAKE, the road safety charity, trains people who run courses for young people in a variety of settings ranging from youth offenders institutions to sports clubs. The courses are targeted both towards young drivers and those coming up to driving age because the 17-21 age group not only has the highest accident rate - which explains their enormous insurance premiums – but are the drivers of the future.
Julie Townsend, deputy chief executive of the charity, says that the courses focus on methods to make young receptive to the messages: ‘One technique is to get people to anticipate how they would feel if they were seriously injured in a crash and not able to continue their lives in the way they do now, or if a friend or sibling were killed.’ Interestingly, the teenagers are more receptive when asked to think about living with a disability or the prospect of a close friend dying, rather than about being killed themselves.
Another project that Brake runs for young people is the 2 Young 2 Die competition, where the charity gets young people to devise their own road safety campaigns and materials – again linked to the concept of getting young people to come up with their own strategies for staying safe and encouraging commitment to them by giving young people ownership over them.
According to Ms Townsend, group discussions are seen the most important component of these courses: ‘Teenagers are particularly susceptible to the views of their peers and do not want to appear stupid in front of them. Therefore, we recommend lots of discussion about possible scenarios where they could be in danger but try to find ways out of it, such as what to do if they are in town, their mate who is supposed to drive and they have no money for a taxi.’ These teaching methods not only get the students to be involved in debate, but also for them to draw up their own strategies which they are much more likely to use in real life situations.