Smart roads

Road Safety: Impact of New Technologies
OECD Observer

Road safety technology has come a long way since the first illuminated traffic signal was installed in London in 1868 – whose gas lamps unfortunately blew up shortly after inauguration, killing a policeman.

Today intelligent transportation systems are being developed to save lives, with such technology as speed control, collision avoidance and vision enhancement.

More than 125,000 people are killed each year in road crashes, primarily due to speeding, alcohol and fatigue. How can technology help? Road Safety: Impact of New Technologies lists a number of tools, from an advanced driver assistance mechanism that steers cars safely through congested traffic at a safe distance from other vehicles, to devices that automatically contact emergency services in case of a crash.

While properly designed and integrated technologies can improve safety, not all technology development is safety related. And while drivers using GPS maps for navigation, for example, have fewer accidents than those reading road maps, there is nonetheless a proliferation of distracting technologies that make no contribution to the task of driving itself. This is a growing concern, as the global market for in-vehicle information and entertainment systems is set to exceed US$40 billion by 2010. Furthermore, distracted driving already contributes to between 20-30% of all crashes.

People and cars should probably not become too dependent on technology though. After all, what if driver skills were diminished and the steering assistance mechanism failed to work, for instance? Nor is technology without ethical controversies. Intelligent speed adaptation can prevent vehicles from exceeding speed limits and dramatically improve road safety, but public opinion might prefer other options, like more policing.

Still, safety has to be bottom line and as Road Safety: Impact of New Technologies points out, intelligent transport systems could save as many as 47,000 lives per year in OECD countries – that is equivalent to the total number of road deaths in the US – while reducing injuries and fatalities by 40%. This translates into economic savings as well; the report estimates the annual cost of road crashes at 2% of GDP.

©OECD Observer No 240/241, December 2003 

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