UK road deaths

The BBC has a fascinating feature at the moment on is web site covering every death on the UK’s roads (it says GB but we are included too – please do not side track this one). A number of interesting things come too light from looking at Northern Ireland’s fatal accidents.

Our motorways are extremely safe. Considering that the M1 and M2 are amongst the most heavily used roads in Northern Ireland there are remarkably few deaths. This of course is a common finding: motorways are very safe. Edwin Poots has set his face against increasing the speed limit to 80 on our motorways (as is being considered in GB) but the arguments on safety grounds are not that good. Motorways are just so safe.

Road death rates in the UK have been falling for years. The reasons for this are complex but enforcement is by no means the most important. Modern cars are colossally safer than they were even twenty (or ten years) ago. Inertia reel seat belts standard for years in both front and back make a major difference. Air bags are not quite as important as many think but are still useful. Cars are so much stronger than they were years ago with complex crumple zone and systems to absorb the impact of a vehicle and prevent heavy lethal objects like the engine intruding into the passenger cell. If one looks at a modern car after an accident it is notable how often the passenger cell is intact whilst the rest of the vehicle is an expensive mess. Hitting something in a modern Mini is much less likely to be lethal than hitting something in an old one.

Even pedestrians have benefited from the changes. The latest European crash legislation (one thing on which I am a Euro enthusiast) specifically majors on pedestrian safety: “An effective design for bonnet structure with the position of hard structures kept underneath gives good pedestrian performance.”

More than the increase in passive safety (safety when one hits something / someone) the biggest gain has been active safety. Active safety means not hitting things in the first place. Modern cars have vastly better ability to stay on the road than older cars. This can be overcome by people driving even more quickly but in general the improvements in road holding from better suspension systems and tyres have resulted in fewer accidents. The improvement in brakes has been if anything even more vast. The stopping distances in the Highway Code can now easily be bettered even in the wet. Clearly reaction times have not improved but the majority of stopping distance is braking and not reaction time.

Another enormous contributor to road safety has been physical road design. Many of the dangerous corners of years ago have been improved; hump back bridges modified; crossroads staggered, roundabouts introduced etc. etc. Little by little these changes have reduced accident and death rates on the roads. To go back to the BBC’s map: look at the fatal accident rates on the M1 at the country end; then look at the rate from the end of the old motorway to the Ballygawley roundabout. On the M1 from Lisburn to Moygashel two or three deaths: on the A4 nine. The likelihood is that the A4 dual carriageway which is to all intents and purposes the extension of the M1 will result in a significant fall in the numbers of fatal accidents.

Absolutely all accidents cannot be prevented. There is a vogue now for calling them collisions and suggesting that all are avoidable. There is some truth therein because some accidents are caused by excessive speed (though often it is excessive for conditions and not excessive per se) others by loss of concentration etc. However, people cannot concentrate all the time: one can call it momentary inattentiveness or whatever one wants the reality is that accidents will happen. Last winter I came round a roundabout and accelerated off it: the back end of the car slid out; by good luck / Grace of God and traction control systems I did not crash (I claim no skill). The roundabout was probably a bit damp whereas the rest of the road was dry. Had I crashed it would have been speed related only in that the car was neither stationary nor moving at 10mph. However, had I crashed the car which saved me by its computer preventing a crash, would probably have saved me by deforming, absorbing the impact and “sacrificing” itself.

For as long as we have cars we will have car crashes. Sadly people will be killed and injured. However, the UK’s roads are amongst the safest in the world and even Northern Ireland’s are not actually bad compared to many countries. Road safety has been improving for years: when people are injured they tend to be very grateful to doctors and nurses – and rightly so. However, we should also thank the road engineers who improve our roads and the car manufacturers who as well as providing stereos and air conditioning have provided us with cars so much safer than they were in the past.