Slight rise in road deaths in 2013

One of the grimmer statistics which is complied at the end of a year is the number of road deaths each year. In 2013 it was 56, which is an increase of 8 as compared to 2012. In 2011 it was 59 and 2010 55. These results still represent an approximately 7 fold decrease in road deaths over the last 40 years. The BBC are reporting Mark Durkin stating:

“It only takes one bad choice to ruin a life. We all share the road, so we all share the responsibility to prevent these collisions,” he said.
“Our ambition is now that of zero road deaths and I urge all road users in Northern Ireland to commit to sharing the road to zero.”

The DoE campaign Road to Zero is also referenced which was launched in April of last year.

Clearly a road death is an appalling tragedy for the family and friends of the victim as is a life changing injury. However, some of the discussion surrounding road safety is a little misplaced, even misleading.

One of the recent changes has been from describing Road Traffic Accidents to Road Traffic Collisions. The suggestion is that very few are accidents but are almost all because of someone’s error. That may be true but the list of trivial errors that can result in a collision is so long that we all commit them practically every time we get into a car.

Clearly going too fast is one of the major problems but it is really speed in the wrong place often combined with misfortune, which causes collisions. The national speed limit is 60 on both A and B roads and we can all think of roads where a long straight is followed by a corner where a speed of 40 may be too high. As such if one does not know the road and slows too little one can have an accident. Whilst that may be the drivers “fault” I am unconvinced that one should be castigated for such an event. Furthermore if a person is killed in such a scenario I am most dubious that the driver should be held criminally responsible for their own or someone else’s death.

To take the theme further: 40mph will kill a pedestrian, which is why the speed limit in towns is 30 but pedestrians also walk about outside towns. However, we cannot realistically have a national speed limit of 30 outside towns. It would be completely impractical and have massive societal costs in terms of time wasted.

The list of trivial mistakes can go further. With ice a car can slide without any warning even at low speed. Clearly ice is somewhat predictable in cold weather but the likes of oil is less so. I can clearly remember about 10 years ago coming off the M2 at Templepatrick and as I came off the slip road and joined the road into the village the car over steered as the back end lost traction for no apparent reason (quite possibly oil). I was not driving fast nor accelerating hard and being well used to rear wheel drive cars (and having traction control – probably more important) I caught the car and drove on. However, if there had been a car coming the other way I would have hit it. I would have been responsible in the sense of insurance but nowadays I suspect I would have been held guilty of careless or even reckless driving. Had someone been killed I might have ended up in gaol. I would argue that events such as this are accidents and we should accept that accidents do indeed happen. Similar minimally culpable errors include changing the radio channel, talking to passengers, looking round because the children are fighting etc.

Once there was a concept of momentary inattentiveness, which was not an offence. Now rather, we seem to insist that someone is always to blame. The claim is that losing concentration is unacceptable and people suggest that surgeons or pilots cannot afford to do this. Knowing both surgeons and pilots I can state that this is nonsense (as can anyone with a modicum of common sense). During critical bits of the operation or plane flight the surgeon or pilot will be concentrating completely. At other times s/he can ask for the radio to be changed, talk to people etc. The point is that in both these activities the points requiring 100% concentration are relatively predictable. Furthermore in the case of the plane (the most analogous to driving) when one is in level flight there is nothing that can realistically suddenly hit you which is in stark contrast to a car on the road.

As such the relentless focus on culpability is somewhat unfair especially as it seems that the police and courts are extremely partial. Young men in sporty cars are much more likely to be prosecuted for a given mistake than middle aged, middle class women in 4x4s. Furthermore as I have noted previously some people effectively get away with scandalously dangerous driving: over traffic offences the law is extremely unequal.

The focus on encouraging safety is, however, entirely valid. Encouraging care and pointing out the awful consequences of RTAs / RTCs is reasonable, it is the idea that there is always blame often criminally to blame which is unfair and unhelpful.

Furthermore the focus on blame tends to take the focus away from the real reasons for the massive fall in road deaths over the last 40 years. A small amount is the successful making of drink driving socially unacceptable and a very small amount may be policing enforcement.

Much more important, however, is road and car design. The real heroes in the reduction in road deaths are the engineers. Almost anyone can think back to the number of dangerous corners, junctions, level crossings etc. which have been changed over the years. Further benefits can still be achieved especially in segregating cars from bicycles and both from people. Keeping the road network up to scratch is also important. Far too many minor roads have such a woefully poor road surface that it contributes to dangerousness let alone the potential for damage to vehicles. Spending public money improving junctions and fixing roads is, however, often more expensive and less popular than apportioning blame to the unfortunate.

The other major contribution to safety is car design. Modern cars are much less likely to crash. Practically every car on sale today has antilock brakes and we have reached the stage that probably even most older cars have it. Many cars also have traction control systems. They also have vastly better tyres. People may claim that reaction times have not changed but total braking time and distance has reduced massively with modern cars.

When a modern car does crash, it has complex safety systems: crumple zones, airbags etc. which are a world away from the cars of yesteryear. Consider a 1980s Ford Fiesta and a current one and the differences are colossal.

New legislation also now emphasises increasing pedestrian safety with the latest NCAP safety standards mandating various improvements. The law may also be changed to make lorries more pedestrian and cyclist safe.

Further safety features are also coming. Mercedes is often one of the leaders in car safety design and now has emergency braking systems which judge if a car is going to crash and apply the brakes as hard as possible: people tend to brake too little and too late in emergencies.

The current plateauing in road deaths may represent the fact that most cars now have most safety features. Further reductions in road deaths will require novel safety innovations in cars to become widely available, further improvements in road design and indeed further education, training and maybe even enforcement. However, the engineering solutions are much the most effective and attempting to apply criminal blame may in many cases be misguided, unfair and ineffective in contributing to road safety.

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