When investing in road safety produces results

The International Energy Agency estimates that there will be more than 2 billion passenger cars on the roads in 2050 from today’s roughly 900 million.

Many drivers might feel that number is already close to target as they head on to busy motorways during the summer peak season—and likely traffic jams. Busy motorways in peak season are an inherent result of modern societies.

Some of their frustration may ease if they consider the benefits of the growing trend of road safety investments.

Road safety is high up on the European Union’s priority list, together with many countries in the Western World. The E.U. has targeted to halve road deaths by 2020 from 2010 levels. It had already set a similar target for the 2001-2010 period.

Governments are keen to promote road safety as a result of the impact of accidents in terms of economic loss and public health issues. The World Health Organization has estimated that the economics costs linked to road accidents is as 2% of gross domestic product in developed economies.

Today’s road safety measures on busy motorways, or at least those that see heavy traffic in peak season, have the advantage of being able to rely on transport technology, such as variable speed limits to lower traffic flow breakdown, as well as traditional instruments such as constructing another lane and widening a road.

The era of massive motorway construction in the high-income world is basically over mainly due to public finance constraints. Using existing roadspace has become a priority as construction becomes prohibitive due to the necessary large financial resources needed, environmental concerns, disruption effects and lengthy planning permissions required. Some estimates indicate a timeframe of two years to upgrade a motorway with transport technology that turns it into a smart freeway compared with 10 years for a road-widening project.

There are no doubts that today’s preference is geared towards a high road-safety effect derived from a low implementation cost.

Transport technology falls under the category of traffic management. The use of speed harmonization and temporary—although in some cases it has turned into permanent--shoulder use to expand the road’s capacity may cut the possibility of primary accidents. Speed harmonization permits to delay the point at which traffic flows break down. It reduces speeds incrementally all lanes across the motorway. A motorway can move more vehicles per hour at 90 kmph (kilometers per hour) than at 130 kmph, according to industry experts.

Variable speed limits signs and lane-control indicators may be mounted on overhead gantries. Dynamic message signs allow for safer driving as motorists are made aware of traffic conditions ahead and approach the end of the line or accidents with caution. Lower speed limits in congested traffic reduce the number of accidents, as well as their severity, and protect those at the end of the queue from secondary accidents. Thanks to the monitoring of closed-circuit television cameras along the motorway it is possible to control speed limits and information signs.

In developed countries, investments to boost safety in roads are making a real contribution to lowering crashes. Costs from road accidents can be significant to the country as they include material damage; cost to society, such as emergency services costs, insurance costs, rehabilitation costs and those from lower production capacity; and human tragedy costs from death or serious injury.

Road safety investments are made because it is estimated that they will yield higher benefits (i.e. reducing accidents, improving travel time, lower vehicle-operating expenses, reduction in vehicle emissions) than costs (i.e. investment and maintenance).

“Investing in [accident] prevention by and large generates profit and there are economic models that can quantify it,” says Mauro Mancini, director of the International Master in Project Management at the School of Management at Milan’s Polytechnic “The saying ‘prevention is better than cure’ stands.”

The choice of which road safety investments to undertake will be based primarily on, apart from financial resources available, efficiency (will the measure be cost effective?) and effectiveness (will the instrument get the job done). No single investment route offers the best solution. They can vary depending on numerous circumstances such as the three case studies below indicate:

1) Great Britain. Just over a decade ago, the country introduced smart motorways on the M42 motorway—famous for being part of the Birmingham Box that navigates the city with other sections of the national road network and that suffers the brunt of some of the country’s heaviest congestions. Initially the traffic management scheme was based on allowing drivers to use the hard shoulder of the motorway as an additional lane during busy periods and variable mandatory speed limits.

The pilot project achieved a reduction in driving time and eased congestion around Birmingham. Furthermore, average fuel consumption dropped as well as vehicle emissions.

A review of the M40 pilot programme importantly found that it improved safety with the frequency of accidents falling by more than half in the area around Birmingham.

In 2014, the hard shoulder was replaced by a permanent running lane on the M25, which circles London and is one of the busiest motorways in Europe with its more than 200,000 daily vehicles. These changes fall within the existing motorway infrastructure, avoiding the need of lengthy planning approvals, complicated public enquiries and possible years of delays.

2)  Australia. Investment infrastructure to boost safety on the 628-kilometer long Bruce Highway in Queensland is underway. Total projected initial installation costs, for instruments such as roadside barriers and intersection treatments, are estimated at AUD$153 million, reaching AUD$204.4 million over the 20-year analysis period to include maintenance costs.

According to a FIA Foundation report the works would save 340 lives over 20 years as well as reduce the number of serious injuries by 2,660 over the same period. The study finds that lifetime costs avoided thanks to the infrastructure investments totaled AUD$558.3 million, including an estimated AUD$134.4 million in long-term care cost.

Improvement works to the Bruce Highway started in 2011. The FIA report concludes that the benefit-cost ratio of the project is an astonishing 17.2 (in other words: it expects AUD$17.2 benefits for each AUD$1 it costs). This means that report highlights how safety and infrastructure is estimated to offer a generous financial return.

3) Sweden. In 1997 the country implemented a “Vision Zero” plan aimed at eliminating all road deaths and injuries. The key to the strategy has been the focus on infrastructure works by rebuilding roads to focus on safety, such as “2+1” lanes on motorways in which ones is specifically linked to overtaking. It boosted traffic management infrastructure and reduced speed limits.

Despite the number of cars doubling since the 1970s, Sweden has reached record low road fatalities. It merited an article from the weekly The Economist in 2014 highlighting this achievement.

However, to it best to keep in mind that even with the most-modern technology in the world, sometimes demand is just too high and bottlenecks are inevitable. But at least safety is a priority.

Evidence shows road safety work is paying off. The Road Safety Annual Report of the OECD’s International Transport Forum shows that generally roads are safer now than in 1970.

The response to British statesman Winston Churchill’s witty remark of “however beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results,” is clearly positive in this case.