Where to next for road safety?
Cars have become much safer over time and continue to improve. Driver-assist technology has helped greatly, and there are growing calls for Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) systems to become standard equipment on new cars. AEB detects hazards ahead and if the driver doesn’t hit the brakes in time, the car will do it for them.
In almost all accidents the human is the weak link: from wanton bad behaviour – drinking and driving, excess speed, using a handheld mobile – to the merely careless driver or rider, human error is a factor in around two-thirds of all reported accidents.
Yet there are things that exacerbate rather than mitigate the effects of human imperfections. That unforgiving tree on the side of the road, poor road layout, lack of central barriers, and so the list goes on. There are common threads.
But are we recognising them?
It is worth looking at how things are done elsewhere – not just in other countries but on other modes of transport.
The UK’s Air Accident Investigation Branch traces its roots back to 1915. Its six teams of inspectors apportion neither blame nor liability but make ‘safety recommendations intended to prevent recurrence’.
So too on the railways. Though the Rail Accident Investigation Branch was only established as a response to the 1999 Ladbroke Grove crash in London, its 43 staff have the same, simple remit as their aviation colleagues: improve safety.
The situation on the roads is fundamentally at odds with this approach. The police are the investigating authority and it is their job to look for fault. They gather evidence for potential prosecutions. Seeing justice done is their top priority.
While there are clear differences between types of transport – professional versus amateur drivers, open versus closed networks, various regulatory approaches – the stark fact is that a relentless focus on tracing and tackling the root causes of crashes can bring big dividends: in 2015, no passengers died in a train crash and only one died in a commercial air accident in UK airspace.
For several years the RAC Foundation has been calling for a parity of approach across modes (our latest call for a Road Accident Investigation Branch came in a report we published just before Christmas). The aim is not to downplay the role of the police, but to demonstrate further that, as a nation, we care as much about eradicating harm on the roads as we do hurt on the tracks and in the skies.
We hope ministers in Westminster will come around to the idea of an investigation body, and we’ve even suggested how they might like to go about it; with a trial on motorways and major A routes under the control of Highways England. These roads are critical to moving goods and people and the economic – let alone human – cost of crashes mounts up very quickly. Also, a lot of data has already been collected, which could aid dispassionate analysis.
The heartfelt hope after any road tragedy is that out of it might come some good. What better way of doing that than by establishing a team of people whose sole job is to learn the lessons of the past to help make a safer future?