It’s time to refuel efforts to boost road safety

Declining mortality, injury and accident rates on the world’s roads is not something that just happens, like gravity. It takes effort – which means some mixture of political will, investment and a coordinated agenda.

Herman De Croo, chairman of the European Transport Safety Council, is worried that on road safety, the news is not so good. Be it due to budgetary pressures in a low-growth era, to temptation by other political priorities, or simple distraction, he worries that many European Union countries are placing less emphasis on road safety, be it by curbing investments or reducing the enforcement of existing rules.

In 2014, some 25,845 people died and 203,550 were seriously injured in road collisions across the European Union. The first figure reflects a 0.6% drop from 2013, but while the downward direction is good, the pace is too slow given the EU target of halving mortality rates in the decade ending in 2020. The serious injury toll, meanwhile, actually represents a 3% increase from the year before.

The EU did hit a similar target from 2000 through 2010, with Italy in particular beating the deadline by two years. But note, between 2007 and 2010, Italy doubled the number of roadside police tests it conducted in 2010. What you reap may reflect what you sow.

Even the EU’s best performers – Sweden and the UK on most measures – are losing the plot. The two countries have morality rates 40% lower than the EU average. But the pace of decline in the UK has “dramatically slowed since 2010,” says De Croo. In Sweden it has actually risen. “These are worrying trends and require immediate attention,” he says.

Germany’s Federal Statistics Office recently released preliminary figures showing road deaths had increased by 2.9% in 2015 from 2014. “We need to move up a gear,”” says Walter Eichendorf, head of the German Road Safety Council. “Continuous and major efforts are needed, as a steadily decreasing number of accidents are not automatic.”

There are multiple ways to steer towards safer roads. Reducing speeding, driving under the influence, failure to use seat belts or helmets are all clear factors. So are regulatory actions such as more roadside checks, more stringent penalties on the licenses of those who commit driving infractions and greater use of highway surveillance technology.

There exists, for example, an alcohol interlock device, which is basically an individual breathalyzer that prevents a car engine from starting unless the driver passes the test. While invasive, it could be required for those who have been convicted of drunk driving in the past. Such a measure has halved recidivism among drunk drivers in Finland.

Other more friendly uses of technology includes a monitor that, using GPS signals, processes the speed limit on any stretch of road and then helps the driver to keep within the limit – though the system can be over ridden. It’s a helping tool, not a punishment device, notes De Croo, who wants EU rules to oblige all new cars to be fitted with such devices. Currently carmakers including Ford and Volvo already offer such systems as optional extas.  Fitting them on all cars would reduce mortality by 20%, according to the ETSC.

Yet more nifty devices are available. Autonomic Emergency Braking systems, for example, can reduce accidents and their seriousness. Injury rates would also decline if, seat belt reminder systems were fitted to all seats. Currently they are only required on the driver seat.

Eventually, police could be equipped with machines able to scan mobile telephones to determine whether a driver had been making a call or texting immediately prior to an accident. So-called smartphone distractions are a major cause for traffic accidents – they now account for one in five collusions on Italian roads, according to consumer advocacy group Codacons.

A recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that engaging in such distractions doubles the risk of a crash – and also that drivers are engaged in some type of distracting activity, including using touchscreen menus on a vehicle instrument panel, more than half the time.

Interestingly, that study also found that speaking with a child in the rear seat of a vehicle lowered the risk of a crash, suggesting that it is distraction by machines, not by people, that are a problem. 

Road safety systems should “recognize the vulnerability of the human body,” according to De Croo’s ETSC. Making that happen requires upgrading crash tests, boosting pedestrian and cyclist protection measures – and possibly new lower speed limits of 30 kilometers an hour in residential areas and 80 kilometers an hour on undivided rural roads.

Ideally De Croo would like to see a European Road Safety Agency set up, amongst whose tasks would be to collect harmonized data on collisions. In-depth analysis of accident dynamics are critical in assessing what measures, both on the policy and physical front, might be needed.

Above all, nations should set concrete measureable targets with accountability mechanisms built in. If fanciful approaches or hope-based strategies don’t deliver, it’s always possible to intensify traffic law enforcement, which the ETSC notes is a “very cost-effective means of enhancing road safety.” It does not require new laws, although it may require more funding.

There may be a further benefit from greater enforcement. James O’Malley recently crunched the World Health Organization’s numbers on annual road deaths and the world Justice Project’s Rule of Law index. To his amazement, he found a reasonable correlation – a Pearson correlation coefficient of -0.68. He then ran the same numbers against an OECD measure of trust in other people and found an even stronger correlation of -0.81.

O’Malley’s experiment was inspired when he noticed how little motorists seemed to worry about being pulled over in some countries – particularly those with higher mortality rates.