Paul Hor­rell

Good news! Our roads are safer than ever. Ap­par­ently

Top Gear (UK) - - CONTENTS -

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

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