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.

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  • “Edwin Poots has set his face against increasing the speed limit”

    Alex Attwood (SDLP) has been the DOE minister since the election in May, Turgon.

    It would be sensible to reduce the 60mph speed limit on narrow country roads.

  • thethoughtfulone

    “Modern cars are colossally safer than they were even twenty (or ten years) ago.”

    It’s a shame that Max Mosley is destined to be remember for less savoury matters when in fact he’s responsible for saving countless thousands of lives and preventing even more horrendous injuries world wide as the man who pioneered the N-Cap scheme which in turn has made such a difference to the safety of cars of all shapes and sizes.

    Mosleys contribution to this went much further than simply being president of the FIA at the particular time. Not surprisingly the initial response of manufacturers to the first series of tests was less than favourable as it proved that despite all their advertising waffle, many cars actually weren’t much safer than during the mid to late seventies. Actually some of the very manufacturers traditionally thought of as having the soundest and safest cars were proven to be anything but. Mosley as a barrister had the knowledge and the nerve to tough it out through all the many threats of legal action from some very, very, rich and powerful companies to the degree that would have been unlikely to happen with someone “taking advice” from a legal team.

    Within a couple of (rather turbulent) years the manufacturers realised that this sort of exposure to the true nature of their vehicles safety wasn’t going to disappear and they could actually use the tests as a marketing tool by gaining as high ratings as possible. From then on vehicle safety has just spiralled to the degree that you’re probably even safer now in a modern super-mini than an executive saloon 10 or 15 years ago.

    Then again, a nazi themed sex orgy is much more interesting to most people than the newest air-bag triggering technology.

  • The momentary lack of attentiveness is a huge factor. In fact, I almost rear ended a car at one of our few roundabouts last evening. The driver in front of me obviously doesn’t know how to use a roundabout and stopped rather than sailing through. I was looking past him and just managed to brake hard and not hit him/her.

  • iluvni

    ..and no thanks to the DoE who are creating danger on roads with their increasing numbers of unmarked/ unpainted road humps and poorly maintained street furniture.

  • Turgon

    Nevin,
    Poots argued against it recently in his capacity as Health and Public Saftey minister.

    As to your comments about country roads there is no evidence for this. Common sense may suggest that but since cars are so much safer than they were and have so much better road holding why do it now? In actual fact one could make the opposite argument.

    The reality is that indeed some minor roads are unsafe at 60 (indeed on some 60 is impossible) but others are completely fine at 60. A blanket 50 on B roads would be foolish. It might stop some accidents but less than have been stopped by engineering. Also it would be silly on some roads and if not enforced would become a topic of contempt. If enforced it would create greater friction between drivers and police. A police officer friend once pointed out that the main negative interaction between law abiding citizens and the police is over traffic offenses. Avoiding such negative interactions is actually very sensible.

  • Turgon, I’m surprised you mentioned Poots when you could have quoted Attwood (7 November 2011), the responsible Minister:

    “I have certainly indicated — as has Mr Kennedy, I believe — that I am not minded to introduce any increase of the speed limit on motorways to 80 mph. Evidence suggests that an increase of the speed limit to between 70 mph and 80 mph has a significant disproportionate impact on road safety, collisions, deaths and injuries.”

  • Skinner

    Rear end out at a roundabout? Must be a BMW (assuming you’re not having fun with a Mk2 Escort)

  • Skinner

    The problem is, no minister is likely to have the balls to introduce an 80 mph speed limit because at some stage down the line it is likely to be deemed a causal factor in a fatal accident.

    However the truth is that we work on an acceptable level of danger. If we didn’t accept a certain level of danger the speed limit would be set at 10mph on the motorway and no one would get anywhere. And even then there would be probably be one fatal accident at some stage.

    So the trick is to work out what the acceptable level is. We all accepted 70mph when cars were absolutely crap. Moving the speed limit up to 80mph when cars are proportionally far more capable of handling it than they were capable of handling 70mph in the 70s should not actually be a ballsy decision. It makes perfect sense.

  • Turgon

    Nevin,
    The problem with all this sort of research is the number of confounding variables. Philip Hammond the Westminster minister respnsible has an equally cogent set of arguments for increasing the speed limit.

    Skinner,
    No it simply means rear wheel drive. I have not driven a front wheel drive car in years. That said I do not notice the difference: I am tediously law abiding mainly because being extremely tight I know that the faster I go the more petrol I use; hence, I do not go very fast. Everyone tells me back drive cars are worse in snow etc. but I am not convinced. Equally I am very stubborn / thran and once ended up using the floor mats under the back wheels to get my last car going again on Scraghy mountain.

  • Turgon

    Skinner,
    Posts crossed. I agree entirely.

  • Skinner

    You sure noticed the difference when you put your foot down on the exit of that roundabout!

  • Skinner

    PS I think there comes a time in every young man’s life when he gets stuck on Scraghy mountain.

  • Turgon

    skinner,
    Fair point re both. On the roundabout some German computer saved me. On Scraghy German floormats: they have never been the same since that said.

  • Cynic2

    “It would be sensible to reduce the 60mph speed limit on narrow country roads.”

    Why? Many of the deaths are due to young people driving too fast for the conditions or elderly people who shouldn’t be driving at all. It should be an evidence based approach

  • Cynic2

    “Evidence suggests that an increase of the speed limit to between 70 mph and 80 mph has a significant disproportionate impact on road safety, collisions, deaths and injuries.”

    Presumably that’s why most of us drive at 80

  • Cynic2

    Its very easy to put the back out when joining the Belfast bound M1 at Ballygawley roundabout. Just accelerate around the corner off the Omagh road and onto the M1 and out the back end goes

  • aquifer

    Those rear wheel Beemers must be tricky in the ice.

  • “Why?”

    Common sense – and the evidence I see on a regular basis.

  • Turgon

    Nevin,
    Common sense does not always work like that. The law of unintended consquences is a powerful one.

    There is one county in England I drove through on holiday (I think Herefordshire) which has a blanket 50 speed limit on its single carriageway roads. It is utterly idiotic: you go far too slowly at times. I obey speed limits pretty religiously but I seemed in a minority of one. Then there was much braking before speed cameras. The 50 limit will bring the law into disrepute or else antagonise police / driver relationships.

    As skinner has said above the limits were introduced when cars were much less safe and less able to hold the road than they are now. Furthermore all limits are a compromise between the need to allow people to get places and safety. A 50 limit on motorways might save a few lives but few. It would also impede traffic flows and actually be bad for the economy. The same argument pertains on country roads: reducing the limit will save a few lives but at expense and with other consequences. The current compromise except with motorways being 80 seems about right.

    It is interesting that in the aftermath of the dreadful M5 crash in the southwest of England some of the road safety people started complaining about the 80 plan for motorways. When it became clear that the police were looking at smoke on the motorway and other issues they went quiet.

    Aquifer,
    My wife whinged about our ancient BMWs in the snow and ice for years. Eventually she insisted on getting a 4×4 which I do not like. I have stuck to back drive (albeit I no longer have a BMW) and have had remarkably few problems. I believe the best bet in ice is to have weight in the back. Some people put a sack of coal or fertiliser or whatever in the boot. Alternatively one can put the engine in the boot like the old Beetles (or Porsche 911s).

    Winter tyres (different to snow tyres) on almost any car are a huge help and most northern European countries require tham by law. Indeed in some countries (I think Germany is an example) when you buy a car as well as the shiny alloy wheels you get a cheap set of steel wheels: you use these for your winter tyres; typically putting them on in November and changing back about April.

    One of the motoring magazines did an example by driving an executive type Jaguar (rear wheel drive) with winter tyres round a snowy / icy circuit and then one of those Mitubishi Evo 4 wheel drive rally type cars with normal tyres. The Jag was much faster and much easier to control

  • thethoughtfulone

    “Winter tyres (different to snow tyres) on almost any car are a huge help and most northern European countries require tham by law. Indeed in some countries (I think Germany is an example) when you buy a car as well as the shiny alloy wheels you get a cheap set of steel wheels: you use these for your winter tyres; typically putting them on in November and changing back about April.”

    I’ve had a set of them on now since last November and they’re terrific. You loose a small amount of grip (in theory) on dry roads when ambient temperature is above roughly 10c, but in practice grip on ice or snow is in another league, wet is substantially better, and how often are you on the limit of grip on warm dry tarmac anyway so I never needed to change them. Allied to rear wheel drive they took me through last winters conditions without fail, I live along an untreated road and then in a private (steep) lane almost a mile long after that again and conditions were pretty bad sometimes but we kept on the go the whole time whilst others were whinging.

  • RyanAdams

    “It would be sensible to reduce the 60mph speed limit on narrow country roads.”

    The problem is the fact some people think thats a target and not a limit.

  • As someone who lives in a very snowy country, I can attest to the fact that winter tyres make a huge difference; even much better than all-season ones. They are worth the cost.

  • Is it worth noting, that many of those boy (accident-looking-for-a-place-happen) racers who have killed themselves in their cars through the years are not on our roads any more, therefore our roads are safer without them.

    I remember years ago, pre-MOT days, saying to a farmer motorist, driving a car up around Moorfields, whose car was rusted and literally held together in places by cord, “All you basically need is 4 new tyres, and then get something to put them on”. I concur that vehicle design and testing has done a lot to keeping fatalities low, a sad fact remains, that although we are 9/10 more likely to be killed by sober drivers it is the 1/10 drivers under the influence of drugs or alcohol who will be prosecuted the hardest.

    We can reduce fatalities even more when we get our heads around the fact that sober drivers are the worst on our roads. Sober Drivers Kill also.