Road safety – who cares?

Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry

Cars are getting safer, but are our roads? Probably not enough.

Christmas and New Year came and went with the usual merry vigour: shopping trips, parties and visits to friends and family. But the holiday season also brought another traumatic wave of death and serious injury on the roads. It is a world-wide problem and while there may have been a reduction in the number of fatalities in some countries – Australia and Mexico for example – others such as Spain saw a substantial rise. But even where there have been falls it cannot be said that injury and fatality on our roads have reached satisfactory or acceptably low levels. They have not. The World Bank estimates that road accidents could become the third cause of mortal-ity by the year 2020 unless there is some radical new thinking about the problem and a fundamental change in attitude. So are current road safety strategies failing us or have tragedies on our roads become banal?

The figures make cheerless reading. Preliminary estimates of road deaths for the 1998–99 Christmas/New Year season show 46 in Australia, 132 in France, 301 in Mexico and 105 in Spain. Poignantly, celebra-ting the New Year accounts for a significant component of these statistics.

Unfortunately, road tragedies happen throughout the year. In 1996, some 130,000 people were killed in road crashes in OECD countries, with the 17–25 and the over 60s age groups most at risk. Up to 60% of total deaths occurred in -rural areas. Ironic-ally, vehicles have never been safer and dramatic improvements have been made in road user safety since the early 1970s when road deaths reached record levels.

The price of a pileup

Road crashes do not come cheaply -either. In 1996 the total economic loss resulting from deaths and injuries amounted to $452.8 billion, which is a remarkable 2% of GDP in OECD countries. This cost is arrived at using what is called the human capital approach, which measures the loss in productive capacity of crash victims, with imputed labour market values used to estimate the output foregone. Insurance payments and amounts paid as compensation are used to evaluate property damage.

Another way of measuring the cost of road accidents is to look at how much people would be willing to pay for improving their road safety. This approach produces an even higher figure than the human capital approach, putting total economic loss at 4% of GDP in OECD countries, or $905.5 billion, again using 1996 as the case year.

Some companies have taken action, such as by training and providing incentives, to reduce the costs imposed on them through days lost and property damaged as a result of road crashes. And some companies have even seen their insurance premiums falling as a bonus.

Still, as a whole, further gains in road safety are proving hard to deliver in the face of increasing vehicle ownership and motorisation throughout the world. There is an argument that the gains in road safety of recent years achieved through compulsory seat belt wearing, random breath testing, improved speed management strategies and advances in vehicle occupant protection systems are close to being exhausted. But underlying this view is an apparent acceptance that road trauma is simply the price we pay for greater mobility and personal freedom, that road safety has indeed reached a satisfactory level.

That view is misguided. The extent of human suffering and economic waste on our roads is not inevitable. But like any challenge facing it, it is for society to decide what it is willing to trade in return for safer road transport. Clearly, all safety improvements involve some cost to society, whether it be stricter speed limits leading to higher policing costs or safer cars pumping up car prices. Road infrastructure improvements, enforcing ever lower levels of blood alcohol content and compulsory helmets for cyclists – these are all possible measures which might justifiably be interpreted as restraining freedom, although others would argue that such measures deliver freedom through security, as well as generating large savings. But whether they can deliver the improvements witnessed in individual OECD countries over the past 30 years (see chart below) is another matter. Still, comprehensive road safety strategies and continued research give some room for optimism.

Getting road safety programmes in line

Simply put, effective road safety programmes need a combination of three things: campaigns to raise public awareness of the risks associated with poor road-user behaviour, a stringent enforcement regime and a consistent penalty system. To those might be added vehicle design and construction requirements and a road infrastructure component.

Excessive speed and alcohol consumption are the two major causes of road accidents. New Australian research has shown that the risk of involvement in a crash in a 60km/h zone doubles for every 5km/h in excess of the speed limit (Kloeden et al, 1998). So speeding at 10km/h over a 60km/h speed limit results in a fourfold increase in the risk. The 60km/h legal speed limit can be likened to driving with a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) below 0.02 g/100mL. Driving at 65km/h is calculated as being similar to the risk of having a BAC exceeding 0.05 g/100mL. By extenstion, the level of risk doubles when the BAC is increased from 0.05 g/100mL to 0.08.

This raises the question about what society regards as an ‘acceptable’ level of BAC for driving. Some countries, such as Sweden, have taken a tough line, adopting levels of 0.02 or less, and there are signs that the trend is moving in that direction. Another question is about penalties and fines, which should be in line with the gravity of the act but not to the extent that they cause confusion. Widely divergent penalty regimes exist for similar offences in OECD countries; speeding or drink-driving can lead to a stiff fine and a suspended -licence in some juris-dictions, to a light fine in others. Also, penalty regimes can generate mixed signals to road -users in that one form of behaviour, drinking for example, is less acceptable than speeding, even though their risks are similar.

Road safety campaigners have to convince the public that speeding is as socially unacceptable as drink-driving. Indeed, by focusing on these two areas alone, a reduction of up to 20% in the level of road fatalities over the next 10–15 years might be achievable (Makeham and Brooks 1998, Vulcan 1998).

There are other areas to look at too. Pedestrians represent about 20% of road deaths and there are indications that that proportion may be rising. Many of them are elderly and specific policies to protect this group would be useful, such as adjusting ped-estrian crossings to suit their needs.

Improving vehicle and road design is clearly important to forcing down the level of road trauma. Promising innovations include new technologies to detect impaired driver performance from fatigue, advanced cruise control and braking systems and even crash avoidance systems. But there are more banal contradictions which might be resolved. For example, there is a view that aerodynamic car fronts, while -saving energy emissions and costs, may be more unfriendly to pedestrians because of the lower point of impact. That means what drives car design may have to be rethought a little too.

All of these improvements entail some adjustment costs and probably some regulation as well. But that seems to be a price worth paying for better road safety. The savings to business, governments and society generally would more than compensate. That makes it a sound investment, with happier New Year journeys and many happy returns.

©OECD Observer No. 216, March 1999

Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q1 2019 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.3% May 2019 annual
Trade: +0.4% exp, -1.2% imp, Q1 2019
Unemployment: 5.2% July 2019
Last update: 8 July 2019

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