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After a decade of stagnation, how can the UK improve road safety in the years ahead?

The United Kingdom is fortunate to have some of the safest roads in the world. Currently, only seven countries have fewer road fatalities per person than the UK.

Marcus Miller
Oct 27, 2023

The United Kingdom is fortunate to have some of the safest roads in the world. Currently, only seven countries have fewer road fatalities per person than the UK. But still, the human and economic cost of road collisions are vast. On average 1,700 people still lose their lives on UK roads each year and an additional 27,000 are seriously injured. The Department for Transport estimates that the total economic cost of road collisions amount to over £34 Billion each year.

During the 1990’s and 2000’s the UK made huge progress in bringing down road fatalities, which was in-part driven by ambitious national government plans, such as the 2000s “Tomorrow’s roads: safer for everyone” national strategy. These plans were the catalyst for a range of coordinated road safety interventions, including safety awareness campaigns (e.g. Think!), pedestrian and cycle infrastructure improvements, more rigorous driving tests and better enforcement of road rules.

The strategies worked. In the early 90s there were approximately 4000 deaths per year on Britain’s roads. Two decades later annual road fatalities had more than halved — in 2010 there were 1850 fatalities.

Today, however, there is an alarming issue with UK road safety. For over a decade there hasn’t been any meaningful reduction in road fatalities, with most changes in the number of fatalities being attributed to external factors e.g. the decrease in road use during the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, over the past 10 years, the UK has had the second worst road safety improvement record in Europe.

(Data Source: Department for Transport, 2022)

During the past 12 years, whilst varying progress has been made on a local level, the Central Government has failed to make road safety a priority, refused to set national casualty reduction targets and failed to develop a comprehensive plan to deliver meaningful progress nationally. Looking ahead, this article will explore 5 ways the UK can help ensure that the failures of the last 12 years are not repeated.

1. Setting national targets for casualty reduction and aiming for Vision Zero

During this phase of stagnation in road safety, there was no clearly defined target to further reduce casualties and the ambition coming from the central government to work on this issue was generally low. The last National Strategic Framework for Road Safety was published in 2011, at the start of the UK’s period without casualty reduction. Unlike the two previous National Road Safety Strategies (published in 1987 and 2000) that ushered in decades of progress, the 2011 Strategic Framework for Road Safety was absent of road safety reduction targets.

Casualty reduction targets are “the single most important policy decision” the government can take to improve road safety, according to the executive director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS). So, when the government publishes the next national road safety plan, which has already been delayed for a few years, the inclusion of casualty reduction targets will be critical to motivate coordinated action, justify funding and provide accountability.

The government needs to make a political statement to promote road safety and reduce fatalities and serious injuries. The international Vision Zero project — a commitment to the elimination of deaths and serious injuries from road traffic collisions — provides the correct framework and should be incorporated in national plans.

There’s already a strong appetite for such ambitious targets on the local level and momentum is rapidly growing. In the past two weeks Liverpool City Region Combined Authority announced their Road Safety strategy that aims to ensure that by 2040 there are no avoidable collisions on the region’s roads. Liverpool follows other Vision Zero cities and authorities including Blackpool (the first authority to commit to vision zero targets in the UK), Brighton and Hove, Transport for London and Edinburgh City Council.

2. Introducing more 20mph speed limits and improving enforcement

Speed continues to be a leading cause of road crashes in the UK and globally. One in four fatal crashes involves someone driving too fast — either drivers exceeding a posted speed limit or driving at a speed that is inappropriate for the road or weather conditions. Consequently, reductions in speed limits are regularly championed as one of the most effective ways road safety can be improved in the UK.

The introduction of 20mph speed limits in urban areas have been around for several years — the first 20 mph was introduced in Tinsley, Sheffield in 1990. However, in recent years the 20’s Plenty movement has gained significant traction across the country, with over 120 places in the UK now having introduced 20mph speed limits. Significantly, Wales recently passed legislation to become the first nation in the world to adopt 20mph speed limits on residential streets, which will come into place in 2023.

The introduction of 20mph speed limits have had overwhelmingly positive impacts, for example, in areas of London 20mph speed limits have contributed towards a 50 per cent reduction in the number of children killed or seriously injured on the roads (see British Medical Journal).

However a key issue remains with these schemes; they’re extremely difficult to enforce. Whilst local authorities do have the authority to enforce them, they typically don’t have the budget to purchase the right equipment to adequately enforce them. Authorities can typically take a few approaches to enforce such speed limits for example, 1) introducing traffic calming measures (e.g. speed bumps) so that schemes are self enforcing or 2) implementing equipment such as speed cameras.

However things look like they are set to change, with Wandsworth Council in London, set to start with the second approach. In a UK first, the council recently won permission to pilot the enforcement of 20mph speed limits. Hopefully this trial proves to be a success and other authorities across the country can follow suit.

Due to budget constraints, authorities cannot expect to introduce enforcement measures at every on every part of the road network, hence, decisions need to be taken to ensure enforcement infrastructure and equipment is optimally positioned. Vianova’s road safety tool provides the insights to optimally plan speed limit enforcement equipment/ infrastructure and to evaluate the impact of speed limit reductions.

3. More adequate infrastructure provision for cyclists, pedestrians and new forms of mobility

The ways Britain’s roads are used is rapidly changing. Cycling, both as a recreational activity and means of transport, is more popular than ever — pedal traffic has grown by 95% since 2004. New modes of transport, such as electric scooters and cargo bikes, have been introduced onto the country’s roads. At the same time home delivery has exploded, increasing the number of Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGV’s) in city centres and introducing new challenges such as double parking.

The country has not responded adequately by adapting predominantly car-centric road infrastructure to accommodate the uplift in light road vehicles (such as bikes, cargo bikes and e-scooters). Again the evidence is in the statistics, between 2004 and 2020 annual cyclist fatalities grew from 134 in 2004 to 141 in 2020.

The UK government needs to channel more investment into its cycle network and investment should be targeted to areas that present the highest risk. A Department for Transport report found that most (68%) serious cycle collisions take place at junctions. Hence, interventions should be targeted to these areas of the road network. Several approaches can be applied such as physical calming measures and reduced speed limits. The UK can learn from interventions in mainland Europe, such as cycle lane marking that continues across junctions — a road safety intervention which is not very common across the country.

The growing use of new transport modes such as electric bikes, e-scooters and other forms of micro-mobility can also help justify the promotion of pedestrian infrastructure and the greater separation between personal automobiles and pedestrians. The key arguments against pedestrianised zones is that they can decrease mobility, however new modes of light electric transportation can ensure adequate accessibility without the need for personal automobiles.

4. Focus on proactive and not reactive road safety planning methods

Ambitious road safety targets, such as Vision Zero approaches, set the right tone for road safety improvement, however without appropriate on-the-ground interventions, these targets can never be met. From a selection of UK authorities in the graph below that have applied a Vision Zero approach for more than five years, only Edinburgh and Brighton & Hove have decreased road fatalities by significantly more than the national average.

(Data Source: Department for Transport, 2022)

This could, in part, be due to the fact that traditional road safety planning and engineering methods are simply not agile enough to achieve such ambitious aims. Traditional reactive road safety transport planning and engineering approaches typically consist of implementing the necessary improvements to existing hazardous sites in order to improve road safety at these sites. In essence, reactive safety planning involves looking at where previous incidents have happened and taking appropriate measures to mitigate risk in the future.

Reactive Road Safety Assessment and Planning

It is almost impossible to achieve the Vision Zero targets if interventions only happen after collisions have revealed safety issues — particularly given how rapidly Britain’s road use is changing. Hence, taking a proactive approach, that assesses road risk before accidents take place, will be necessary to meet local Vision Zero targets. To take proactive decisions authorities will need access to the right tools and data to help support proactive planning decisions, such as Vianova’s road safety tool.

5. Utilising Connected Vehicle Data

Modern vehicles (i.e. passenger cars, delivery vans, e-scooters, etc.) are sensors on wheels, making them tools for harvesting large amounts of real-time, geo-localised data in cities and on our road networks. When utilised correctly, this data can be a goldmine for road safety planning.

Today, modern connected vehicles can have between 60 and 100 sensors on board. These sensors collect a whole range of information including temperatures, oil pressure and emission level. But importantly for road safety they can also detect heavy braking incidents, vehicle speeds, harsh steering and harsh acceleration events, which can all be predictors of safe driving behaviour. Typically this data is not made accessible to local authorities, highway authorities or transport planners/ engineers and predominantly used in internal Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) to for example notify drivers of hazards, assist with parking. At Vianova we’ve embarked on a project seeking to change this.

Vianova’s road safety tool collects ADAS event data, such as heavy/ emergency braking, speeding and oversteering events, in partnership with some of the world’s leading OEM’s. This data is aggregated to help authorities identify vulnerable areas of the road network and assess infrastructure and policy implementations, before accidents have happened.

This tool can drastically improve a highway or transport authorities understanding of road safety. As road accidents are (thankfully) very rare, basic tools such as data on historic collisions and speed study’s won’t fully identify the vulnerabilities in a road network. Vianova’s road safety tool paints a much more comprehensive picture of road safety vulnerabilities and allows authorities to assess infrastructure interventions before accidents take place.

To find out more about Vianova’s road safety tool check out the following information:

About Vianova

Vianova is the data analytics solution to operate the mobility world. Our platform harnesses the power of connected vehicles and IoT data, to provide actionable insights to plan for safer, greener, and more efficient transportation infrastructures. From enabling regulation of shared mobility to transforming last-mile deliveries, and mapping road risk hotspots, Vianova serves 150+ cities, fleet operators, and enterprises across the globe to change the way people and goods move.
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