Fast Lane: Italian highway safety is on a roll
Interview with Paolo Berti (Chief Operations & Maintenance Officer Head of External Relations, Institutional Affairs and Marketing of Atlantia and of Autostrade per l'Italiaof Autostrade per l'Italia) by Christopher Emsden
Italian driving is, as you no doubt know, the object of a certain amount of global clichés. Many foreigners shiver at the thought of having to drive on a road in Italy. Are they right?
Clichés are usually wildly wrong, of course, but it’s legitimate to wonder how they originate. Let’s see if evidence can help answer the question. It would be easy to support the cliché by noting that Italy has the highest number of traffic-related deaths in the European Union. They sadly added up to 3,381 in 2014. Germany, with a population that is 50 percent larger, had only 3,368. On the other hand, Poland, which is a third smaller, had 3,202. All in all, there are 55.6 road deaths a year for every million residents in Italy, which is 9 percent above the EU average. To make dramatic comparisons, the figure for Germany is 41.6, for Spain 35,7, and for the United Kingdom and Sweden, 28 or less – half the Italian level.
Those figures keep the cliché alive. But in my view they are also misleading. One common view of outside is that Italians all drive as if they were steering a Ferrari, racing along at a high speed. Well, to do that you’d need to be on a highway. And here’s something people – even inside Italy – may not realize: highway driving here is not the problem. In fact, there were only 287 deaths on the Italian highway network (140 deaths on the network of Autostrade per l’Italia Group). That’s fewer than 10 percent of the total.
We worked hard – those interested can see just how hard by looking at our "Carta dei servizi" or service charter - to make that sharp downward trend happen. In fact, the mortality rate on our network dropped by 72 percent between 1999, when Autostrade was privatized, and 2015. That is based on the measure of how many deaths for every 100 million kilometers driven, which is the correct way to analyze this. And the decline will be even greater when updated until today. Not only have we worked to reduce mortality, but also accidents in general. These have nearly halved over that time frame.
Did Italians suddenly become good drivers, breaking the cliché? Perhaps. I think Autostrade deserves a lot of the credit. For example, we are using a special kind of draining asphalt on the highway network. In 1999, only 16 percent of the network had that, while today it is 85 percent. And the effective figure is really 100 percent, because the only stretches where we didn’t put it down is where there are sound reasons not to - for example in tunnels, or in some mountain passes where it could have adverse environmental impacts.
We engaged in a series of communication campaigns to boost awareness of road safety principles. We also introduced Tutor, one of the jewels in Autostrade’s technological crown. That began in 2004, and is an avant-garde project widely watched around the world. The system captures the average speed at which vehicles are driving between any two Tutor portals. It is managed by the police – in fact, only the police have the right to use it to levy fines, which are automated and never pass through our company – and is proving highly effective. Since 2004 alone, mortality has been slashed by more than half, injuries by more than a quarter and accidents by almost 20 percent. Now, many Italians claim to hate this kind of automation, especially when it exposes them to fines. But that is another discourse, not about driving! More to the point, Autostrade rolls out Tutor infrastructure – which now covers more than 2,500 kilometers of highways – in step with our analysis of where accidents appears to be happening most frequently. The point, clearly, is to have the maximum and quickest impact. It works: Our data show that the average speed on stretches where Tutor is active is reduced by 15 percent within the first year of installation. Furthermore, in 2002 Autostrade per l’Italia also launched a specific program for improving safety on its network, by improving the processes already in use for analyzing accident rates with the introduction of a model aimed at early detection of potentially critical points and enabling targeted preventive actions.
This process was further revised in 2014 according to a logic of continuous improvement, by introducing:
Based on these methods, more than 2.000 specific actions (curve profiling, upgrading of standard signage, high-impact signage, special notices, special high-grip paving, rumble strips, etc.) have been carried out since 2002.
The results were amazing: accidents in the analyzed points reduced by 81 percent between 2002 and 2015!
Those are impressive results. But why is the overall mortality rate high on Italian roads if Autostrade is having such success on the safety front?
We don’t manage all the roads! My point is that Italian highway safety is in fact quite high, among the best in the world. I hope one day that will be true of the entire road network. There is a lot of work to do. For example, mortality rates among bicyclists is dreadfully high at more than five a week, and it’s much worse for pedestrians. So there is a problem – although obviously bicyclists and pedestrians aren’t using Autostrade’s network. I also have sadly to report that the data show that while the mortality rates for pedestrians and cyclists is declining, it’s only at half the pace of overall road deaths. That points to some cultural issues, for sure, especially as a third of pedestrian deaths are on zebra crossings.
On an optimistic note, I think Autostrade’s experience can be useful for the rest of the road network. Indeed, our cultural emphasis is already a good start. We have worked closely with the police, not just with Tutor but also on efforts to reduce weekend night accidents linked to alcohol. Mortality of this type has declined by more than 60 percent since 2000. This is the fruit of a combined effort – ours, automobile safety standards, and notably that of the police, who have managed to multiply checkpoints and breathalyzer tests by tenfold since 2007.
To be sure, legislative action could provide a big help. And a new Road Code is close to being approved by parliament. Tougher sanctions on abuses, including the use of homicide charges in some lethal accidents, would make a big contribution. It is awful that more than 100 road-related deaths were reported in 2014 in cases where the culprit drove away and disappeared. That said, the point is not in the punishment. The point is in boosting awareness that driving safely is an obligation. And that doesn’t just mean avoiding drunken driving. One of the big concerns now is that people get distracted with their smartphones while driving. Serious public campaigns and educational initiatives are needed, ideally tough ones as rolled out in the U.K. and Spain. Autostrade easily achieved the EU’s 2010 target of halving roads deaths in a decade, doing so two years early. So it’s possible. The next EU target is for 2020, and it’s to halve them again. This can be done, but it will require the whole orchestra to play well.
Are you suggesting that better road safety is a political matter?
I mentioned the Road Code. That’s a parliamentary act. But I don’t think it is useful to reduce everything to politics, especially in Italy where it is a bit of a sport to blame politicians for every manner of thing. It’s a joint venture – highway operators like us, those in charge of maintaining provincial roads and urban streets, police, schools, bars and restaurants, and even our personal groups of friends, who should be encouraged to discourage foolish behavior.
It’s also critical to get away from a purely negative approach to safety, one based on controls, tougher laws and higher fines and a general repression-based approach. You now know that Autostrade’s highways are not where the main problem is, so it’s’ not just a question of pure speed, to evoke your original Ferrari-driving cliché. In fact, Autostrade began in 2006 to use an indicator called Total Delay. This allows us to monitor traffic flows and in particular traffic fluidity. We monitor stretches and assess how much time is being lost by our highway clients compared to what a normal speed would be. This allows us to target our troubleshooting. We have managed to reduce the total number of hours lost – our Total Delay indicator – by 55 percent since 2006 with this method. So it’s important to keep in mind that it is not only speeding that is a risk, but also frustrating congestions that can lead to less predictable driving behavior. This is clearly a point where the “system” – and not just the drivers – can make a contribution, as we have.
Allow me to make one more note on politics, since you brought it up. Road safety is a point on which intuitively a convergence on a common goal should be quite simple. Then everyone has to do their job. For us, that has meant make substantial investments, but the cost has an exceptionally high return if you think there are 300 fewer road deaths a year on our Italian highways, so we’re very happy. This result is possible for other stakeholders in Italy’s transportation system, above all those who use it. That means lawmakers, for sure, but also the public.