The publication of Transport Scotland’s road safety consultation in early September follows a UN resolution and the Stockholm Declaration earlier in the year calling for a reduction in road traffic deaths and serious injuries by at least 50% from 2020 to 2030.
These strategies rightly seek to ensure that all modes of transport are as safe as they can be. In August three people tragically died on Scotland’s railway, and at least five times this number die each month on Scotland’s roads. The rail tragedy prompted a detailed investigation, and changes are promised to ensure a similar accident never happens again. No such investigation has been undertaken for the road deaths. This needs to change for the vision of eliminating deaths to be realised.
Part of the difference in safety culture between air/rail and the roads relates to accountability. To sharpen accountability on the roads, most countries introduced liability laws to incentivise those best able to effect change to act. UK authorities have been slow to follow these improvements, but the proposed reform of the Highway Code is a huge step forward to clarify liability, simplifying legal processes and tackling the loopholes that can adversely affect more vulnerable road users.
Analysis recently released by the Road Safety Foundation and EuroRAP showed that the UK was falling behind the safety improvements being made in some other countries. For example, Norway has continued to see reductions in road deaths to levels 30% lower than the UK. In 2005 Norway introduced fatal accident inquiries for every road death so that there could be learning about how each death might have been prevented.
In Scotland, danger to pedestrians has been a particular long term problem, due to in part to the built environment, demography and relatively low car ownership. Whilst some recent progress has been made, this is far below the rate needed for a coherent Vision Zero strategy. The fall in fatal and serious casualties to walkers between 2012 and 2019 was 22%, compared with a fall in walking levels of 15%. Based on current road danger levels, a switch from car to walking trips would be inconsistent with road safety aims.
Looking back, the UK’s world leading road reduction target in 1987 sought a third reduction in casualties by 2000. At the time, many thought that the reliance on technology for delivering this change was overestimated but if anything the researchers’ under-estimated what could be achieved. Looking forward, as vehicles have greater autonomy to cancel out human error, and humans have greater opportunities to use safer machines, the prospects for approaching close to Vision Zero within a decade or two is now a realistic prospect. Improved technology that supports the best of human behaviour and which helps to overcome the greatest human weaknesses will be more publicly acceptable and successful.
However, at the low tech end of the casualty spectrum we do not even yet have reliable data on pedestrian and cycle casualties, far less effective inquiry into how people and machines can reduce them. Data from acute hospitals show admissions for road casualties consistently twice those recorded on STATS19 forms by the police. The pedestrian injuries are the least likely to be recorded, and serious injuries from falls by pedestrians on poorly maintained footpaths, is a growing problem for an aging population. Accident prevention programmes to tackle these lower profile casualty problems need new major programmes of work.
The new Scottish consultation states that it is based on a ‘safe system’ approach, putting people at its centre. For active travel, the government proposals suggest that “active travel initiatives will have to support tackling the so-called ‘safety in numbers’ effect.” These words “have to” in the proposed government approach reveal a critical problem that needs tackled. Many of the most serious pedestrian injuries occur outside the major urban centres. Safety in the absence of large numbers of pedestrians is also vital. New approaches to road danger reduction are needed everywhere, well beyond the current technology roadmaps and business as usual road safety strategy.
EuroRAP and the Road Safety Foundation are calling for an immediate £1.2bn investment in low cost accident prevention schemes on Britain’s most dangerous roads. Estimates for the costs of delivering safer walking and cycling networks are even higher. Getting serious about road danger reduction is exceptionally good value but is not cheap. Each time a safer route to school scheme is co-designed by school pupils and their families, the investment in road crossing facilities, street lighting, footpath widening and other improvements, deliver human behaviour change alongside the infrastructure improvements. The safe routes to shops, health centres, leisure centres and other local facilities identified with local communities in their accessibility plans have been grossly underfunded for decades. These schemes can be ‘shovel ready’ in weeks or months and can be central to the current needs of society to build back better.
Government policies recognise that Vision Zero is within reach. However, the barriers to getting there will not be diminished by setting targets for casualty reduction. The route map to Vision Zero must factor in large increases in active travel levels needed for healthy sustainable approaches, building new technology into more human centric designs. A fatal accident inquiry for every pedestrian death would be a good place to start the planning of investment in new safer routes.