Safety, the hidden success story – except the roads

One of the unheralded successes of recent years has been the massive progress on transport safety. On the railways, there has been just one passenger death in an accident in the past decade. Whereas even as recently as in the 1970s and 1980s, there were several fatal crashes each year, routinely nowadays there are none.

In the air, too, safety has come to be taken for granted. The major Western and Asian airlines are have an almost unblemished record in recent years – the Air France disaster over the southern Atlantic three years ago was a rare exception. Again, crashes, even among established airlines were an accepted hazard a generation ago. There remains concerns over Third World, particularly African, and some Eastern European countries, notably Russia, which have relatively frequent accidents but otherwise, again, safety has become routine.

The exception, of course, is road transport. Here, the British record is relatively good with the figure for 2010 reaching a level lower than any in modern times but nevertheless there are still five deaths a day. And the latest statistics show an increase, the first since 2003, with deaths in 2011 rising to 1,901 from 1,850 the previous year.

While it would be wrong to draw too many conclusions from one year’s figures, especially as the previous year showed a remarkable decrease, the rise coincided with a change in government policy that could suggest a relationship. Funding for speed cameras, which have incontrovertibly shown to reduce accidents, was cut while Philip Hammond, the then transport secretary, announced at the Tory Party conference that increasing the speed limit to 80 mph on motorways was being considered. Spending on road safety education has been reduced, too.

All this creates the wrong kind of atmosphere and panders to the vested interests of those who shout loudest but know least. Road safety has improved over the years through a series of measures, mostly introduced in the face of concerted opposition from within the industry and by usually utterly unrepresentative motoring groups. Safety belts were seen as a major attack on human rights – remember the ridiculous concession that taxi drivers were exempted – while the breathalyser was going to ruin the rural pubs industry.

Speed cameras have been another battleground and the failure to make 20 mph zones in residential areas has not only lead to unnecessarily high levels of road deaths, but also contributed to degradation of the environment – living on streets with speeding cars is unpleasant for residents.

A much more measured opinion on road safety than provided by the louder groups such as the Association of British Drivers who seem to dominate the air waves, comes from Simon Best, the Chief Executive of the Institute of Advanced Motorists. In response to the rise in deaths he argued that it was the perception created by the changes in policy over road safety that poses a risk, saying that ministers should take the rise as a ‘serious warning. Cutting road safety education and reductions in local authority spending all suggest that road safety isn’t a major priority for this government’. While it would be difficult to attribute particular accidents to the various changes in policy, the perception they create is important and worrying.

Mr Best suggest we need a change in tack. He argues that targets at a local level are needed to reduce the death toll to ‘help make sure that councils look at new and innovative ways to save lives on our roads.’ Yet, the Coalition government’s policy seems to be moving in the opposite direction, Whereas other European governments – who have sometimes been well behind the UK on this issue – are now taking the matter seriously with Sweden, for example, having a target of no deaths, an attitude of laisser faire seems to prevail in Whitehall. Thankfully, the plan to raise the speed limit to 80mph on motorways seems to have been quietly shelved by the Hammond’s replacement, Justine Greening as there is very little support from other than from Top Gear enthusiasts but the perception that road safety is unimportant and that speeding is OK remains.

I somewhat suspect that in a couple of decades people will look back at the way that road safety has been treated just as today we are shocked at those old films showing people smoking in offices or undertaking perilous tasks on roofs without any safety harnesses. Given the amazing safety improvements in public transport, the acceptance of the continuing high death toll on the roads is a historical anomaly. If it continues to rise in the face of the cuts in spending on safety, there is bound to be mounting pressure for the government to change tack.


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