Slugger O'Toole

Conversation, politics and stray insights

Slight rise in road deaths in 2013

Sat 4 January 2014, 4:49pm

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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Comments (17)

  1. David Crookes (profile) says:

    Thanks a lot, Turgon! First-class piece of work.

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  2. Charles_Gould (profile) says:

    A few further trends to add to Turgon’s piece:

    *self driving cars
    *bicycles

    Self driving cars are just around the corner.

    Culpability, the issue turgon mentions so much above, is a key issue in this. When a self driving car kills someone, who is going to be to blame. This is needed for insurance markets. Is it the car firm, the owner, or who?

    The self driving car may end up reducing deaths, as it tries to stop before hitting anyone, and adopts sensible speeds, but it can’t be guaranteed to be totally 100% safe.

    Bicycles are on the rise. As they’re more dangerous, they may result in more road deaths.

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  3. Charles_Gould (profile) says:

    Turgon

    We need culpability for all mistakes, because in many cases someone is to blame. If such mistakes are not penalised, there is a moral hazard problem: people end up changing their behaviour. So we need to punish the innocent to discourage the potentially guilty. It’s a utilitarian based theory of justice.

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  4. tommy15 (profile) says:

    Turgon

    car drivers should start taking responsibility for their actions however trivial and drive with a duty of care towards other road users especially children pedestrians and cyclists.
    Sadly your article shows you have a weak if any understanding of road safety

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  5. This huge reduction in road deaths is a worldwide phenomenon, at least in developed countries, due to the reasons Turgon points out. In my neck of the woods, the majority of deaths seems to be amongst young people. Usually because they are driving too fast for conditions and are overconfident in their abilities. Is it the same in N.|I.? I should note that we do not require learners to display an “L” plate and there aren’t any restrictions once they have passed their road test.

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  6. Zig70 (profile) says:

    The recent reduction in speed and accidents probably has more to do with petrol prices than engineers. Certainly has little to do with enforcement as traffic branch has left down a side road. I’m a bit concerned at the lack of police focus on traffic behaviour. Every day you see someone texting never mind just on the phone while driving.

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  7. Excellent post.
    I am a non driver but increasingly worried about my wife’s safety.
    Being a careful driver is no guarantee of being safe from others…or from making an occasional mistake.
    My observation is an increase in aggressive driving…in big cars by over confident and/or careless people …not necessarily young males.

    We need to draw a distinction. We can be tolerant of occasional errors, even resulting in injury and be absolutely ruthless with drivers who are serial offenders.
    Over the course of my life, we have seen Society change attitudes…to drink driving, to seat belts, to cell phones.
    While protecting the Motorist from excessive policing, we have to realise that cyclists, pedestrians have rights and responsibilities as do mere passengers, such as I have become.
    TV Programmes like Road Wars are genuinely scary. Aggressive and illegal driving….too often a story is completed with the words “six month suspended sentence” or “skipped bail”.
    Something needs to be done.

    A word about Cyclists. I neither drive or cycle and am neutral in the unseemly war between them. But I am increasingly bewildered by the behaviour of cyclists (there is too often a tendency for them to believe that saving the worlds fossil fuels bestows Entitlement).
    In the early 1960s we used to have road safety adverts referring to cyclists riding in single file.
    Whatever happened that?
    Each weekend we find ourselves behind leisurely peletons spread from grass verge to line in the middle of the road.

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  8. Charles_Gould (profile) says:

    “In the early 1960s we used to have road safety adverts referring to cyclists riding in single file.
    Whatever happened that?”

    I think it’s called “reclaim the streets”.

    Be happy. In London they do it naked.

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  9. Charles_Gould (profile) says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIlOrymCJyY

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  10. Zig70 (profile) says:

    https://www.gov.uk/rules-for-cyclists-59-to-82/overview-59-to-71
    Cyclists are only meant to be 2 abreast. However, I’m a keen cyclist and commute by bike. Cycling in a pack feels a lot safer than in single file. The amount of cars that try to squeeze by when you are in single file. How can they care so little for my life? I’ve a big expensive car in the garage and pay loads of road tax so really they should get out of my way. ;-)

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  11. sherdy (profile) says:

    Not bad, Turgon, but you mention the speed factor (40mph), and yes, at 30mph there will be less serious casualties. Extrapolate that reasoning and you will find that zero speed, or even moving at 3-4mph will totally eradicate serious injuries. If we follow that logic, we will do away with motorised vehicles altogether.
    We don’t want any deaths, and this is the only way, so who can argue against it?
    Charles claims bicycles are ‘more dangerous’, but I would say that training young people properly would make a difference, as bicycles, properly ridden, are not inherently more dangerous.
    One thing I do know is that when a motorist sees a cyclist, the drivers brain is fully aware that the cyclist, whatever he/she does, will not hurt the driver. But the driver will certainly hurt the cyclist who is not protected by a cage of steel.
    If all teenagers cycled for a couple of years they would learn a lot more about road surfaces and conditions, and about the relative speeds of vehicles and overtaking abilities. This would be a good grounding for aspiring motorists.

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  12. Reader (profile) says:

    Zig70: The amount of cars that try to squeeze by when you are in single file.
    Precisely. When cyclists are side by side, car drivers are forced to pass them by overtaking properly rather than trying to slip past. Far safer.
    Since I worked that out, I have always tried to pass cyclists in a properly thought out manoeuvre, even if there is only one of them.

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  13. Turgon (profile) says:

    tommy15,
    Everyone should take responsibility for their actions on the road. The issue is whether trivial mistakes are legally culpable.

    Most of the reduction in deaths (7 fold over 40 years) is not, however, explicable by individual drivers “taking responsibility”. Rather it is road engineering – improving roads and segregating the likes of cars and bicycles and pedestrians. Also engineering of vehicles improving active safety – better brakes etc. and passive safety such as the recent changes requiring increased bonnet safety for people struck by cars.

    One suspects that your “understanding” of road safety is driven by an ideological position – drivers are at fault and that enforcement is the main driver of increased safety. The evidence is to the contrary which demonstrates your limited (and biased) “understanding” of road safety.

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  14. Sally B (profile) says:

    An interesting article and very much part of the way of thinking when discussing road fatalities. There’s a lot of money to be made in road safety, from the perspective of the vehicle manufacturers, insurers, the EU Commission, National government and not to mention those that put out the doom and gloom advertising campaigns.

    I just wonder if anybody has considered the fact that it may well be the case that the pedestrian is at fault. Too many drinks before setting off home from the pub. Wearing dark clothes, not walking on the side of the road facing traffic. It’s very easy to speculate and point the fickle finger at some poor sod driving home.

    The Vision Zero concept is not necessary a bad thing – but it has been completely misunderstood. If we follow the original concept put out by Claes Tingvall the Swede who developed it, you would understand that was never intended to be used to blame any road user.

    Infact Tingvall’s comment “Nearly every crash starts with a human act. Nothing else can happen. It’s usually a mistake or a violation. Moreover, the consequences are already in the system design. Every professional should know that you need to bring into your design the failing human. If that is not your starting point when you design something hazardous, then you will fail. There is no example in history of designing something based on the human doing the right thing”. If you google his interview on the Tispol website you can see more.

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  15. tommy15 (profile) says:

    Turgon

    “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.”
    As you say trivial errors result in collisions – its time drivers started to concentrate on their driving and collision avoidance.

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  16. This year has started badly.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-25695396

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  17. Turgon (profile) says:

    tommy15,
    “its time drivers started to concentrate on their driving and collision avoidance.”

    Well firstly why should pedestrians and cyclists not also be responsible for exactly the same?

    Secondly as noted above it is simply impossible to concentrate all the time. Surgeons do not and nor do airline pilots. Making people criminally liable when they make trivial mistakes which sadly result in death is unfair. We accept the concept of accidents in many other walks of life: to refuse to do so in driving merely brings the law into disrepute.

    The question is whether the action was criminally negligent not what the outcome was. The problem of moral luck is relevant here.

    To make the example more stark: If a driver is doing 60mph on a clear road and a child runs out and is killed who is responsible: not the driver. If the driver was a 50 year old woman in a Range Rover I suspect there would be little chance of her being prosecuted. If the driver was a 20 year old man in a Honda Civic Type R I suspect he might be prosecuted. This is unfair.

    Further if a cyclist causes an accident with a car and are themselves injured are they prosecuted – rarely. However, the other way round is more likely.

    However all your points ignore the fact that the accident death rate has fallen 7 fold despite a more than doubling of traffic volumes. That speaks not of people “concentrating” more but of increased safety such as in segregating cars, cyclists and pedestrians; improving roads; increased active safety (better tyres, antilock brakes etc.) and passive safety (air bags, pedestrian safer bonnets etc).

    Still do not let these tedious but relevant and useful engineering solutions prevent you from talking nonsense about blaming motorists for lack of “concentration”

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