Good news! Our roads are safer than ever. Apparently
Our roads are safer than ever before. Or are they? Paul untangles the truth
Ever watched 24 Hours in A&E? It’s an enthralling and very humane caravan of real people being patched up after awful injuries and bodily failures. Medics swarm the victim, each calmly doing just the right thing. Like an F1 pit stop, only with the bloodied and battered patient in place of the race car. But the staf aren’t the only stars. They call on rooms humming with bleedingedge hospital technology, and also often buy critical time by helicoptering the patients in. I can’t believe casualty departments were anything like this efective a decade or two ago. Miracles, in this modern hospital, seem routinely to be wrought.
Some of the injured are provided by road accidents. If emergency medicine is so vastly improved, you’d expect the road toll to fall, even if the number of actual crashes and their severity stayed the same over the years.
And thankfully, deaths and injuries have been reducing. Per billion vehicle miles in the UK, the rate is half what it was in 1990 and an astonishing tenth of what it was in 1970. So the casualties fall, even as the amount we travel has risen. But that’s still a grizzly 1,700 deaths a year, and the decline has slowed. We need to know what’s behind the fgures so we can propose ways to lower them further. I fear hard evidence is scant.
The car industry claims credit with its stronger safety cells, better restraints and electronic driver aids. Yes, evidence says ABS and ESP have done good. But now they’re selling everbrainier warning systems and near-autonomous driving. When I ask engineers whether there’s evidence that this new stuf works – rather than just allowing drivers’ attention to wander dangerously – they shrug and say “Well, it works in the simulator, but in the real world it’s too soon to tell.”
Meanwhile their colleagues on the other side of the R&D departments are building endless new connectivity and entertainment apps that might well distract the driver, entirely ofsetting the gains made by the safety kit. The insurance industry is distinctly worried about this, but in the absence of actual evidence, who knows?
How much has a drop in drink-driving helped? Look at accident stats from the Eighties, and a frightening proportion of them – sometimes a third – implicated alcohol. Driving after a few drinks is more shocking to most people now, and, in Scotland at least, the limit has dropped. An improvement? No one knows if there are fewer drunks behind the wheel, because the number of trafc policemen has dropped.
Pressure groups in search of simple answers say a reduction in rural and motorway speed limits, or greater enforcement, will do the trick. But, in general, people are driving more slowly anyway these days. Extra congestion is slowing them down, and they know better than they did that dropping your cruising speed by 10mph saves expensive fuel.
Many of the road victims on 24 Hours in A&E are motorcyclists, others cyclists, too many pedestrians – especially kids who’ve been knocked down. Sure enough, only half (and falling) of the deaths in Britain are people in cars. Some 19 per cent are motorbikers – which is scary considering how few bikers there are – and 23 per cent pedestrians, six per cent cyclists and the rest ‘other’ (bus passengers? Rollerbladers?).
There is actually pretty clear evidence that lower urban speed limits will help these vulnerable road users. Frankly, even if you like driving fast, 20mph isn’t much more frustrating than 30mph. In my town, the average speed is about 11mph, so a lower limit would hardly mean journeys took longer. But shouldn’t everyone shoulder some responsibility? The cyclists – of which I’m one, often – surely ought to be dressing up in lumo and getting some decent lights at night. (I don’t want to discourage anyone from walking or cycling. It’s good for you. Weigh up the overwhelming likelihood it’ll prolong your life by a few years against the vanishingly small chance it’ll cut it drastically short.)
Anyway, it’s hard to untangle the evidence of what’s helping road safety and what isn’t. I’ve never seen the improvement in emergency medicine cited as a reason, but right here let’s give the A&E staf a massive cheer.
Fewer road trafc accidents = good
news for us all