Eight hundred and fifty six thousand seven hundred and thirty seven

In the year of my birth there were 6,970 deaths due to road accidents. Since that time the number of road miles travelled in the UK has risen by a factor of 4.4 and the number of vehicles has increased by a factor of 3.7.

And the number of deaths? That has fallen to a low of 1,713 (2013). Statistically, road travel is 18 times safer than it was when I was born. Roads are still dangerous. In the period in question there have been 275,000 road deaths which is a significant number. But here is an even more staggering number. If road travel had not become any safer, and road deaths had increased by the same factor as the miles travelled there would have been an almost unbelievable 856,737 additional deaths on the roads in the years I have been alive.

What changed to enable this number of lives to be changed? We can point to improvements in vehicle technology, such as passenger safety shells, and air bags. Better brakes. Better petrol tanks to prevent fire and explosions. Better tyres.All these things are fairly consistent across all vehicles across all countries. So these improvements have led to lives being saved. But this is not the whole story. For example, why do nearly twice as many people die in road accidents in the USA than in the UK (per mile travelled)? We have to look for other reasons.

The changes in car technology have largely affected the survivability of accidents. This is of course a good thing. But the best way to make an accident survivable is to avoid having the accident in the first place. And this is what has happened. Per mile travelled there has a been an eight-fold reduction in the number of accidents.  Partly this will be down to the mix of roads used – we know that motorways have far fewer accidents than minor roads. But largely this is down to a couple of factors. Road design, and the management of driver behaviour. What has facilitated these changes?

I would say that the first place to look is the Transport Research Laboratory. You may not like vision statements but the TRL vision is a simple one – “to be a world leader in evidence-based transport solutions that are efficient, accessible, clean and safe”. I would say that it has made great inroads (sorry) in the ‘safe’ part of that vision.

How has it done this?

If you look back over the past fifty years you won’t see many great big bang changes in road safety. The only one I can really remember was the seat belt law. When you look at the change in death rate over time you see a smooth progression:

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Subtle changes in roundabout design. Improved visibility of signage, using more readable fonts. Speed cameras on the more dangerous parts of the road network. Carefully designed kerbs to push straying drivers back onto the carriageway. Rumble strips on the edges of motorway carriages. None of these can save a life once an accident has occurred, but each of them prevents many accidents.

How does TRL work?

It looks at where there are problems. It studies the problem. It proposes a number of solutions, and then tests them, both at its own research facility and then in the real world. Only when the evidence base exists does it then say, “this is what we should do, and how we should do it.” The method works. The proof of the pudding is in the 856,000 people who did not die in a road accident.

What they have not done is sit around looking for the (mythical) big bang, one change saves everybody approach. Our roads are a complex system. It involves a massive legacy infrastructure which we just have to get on and use to the best of its ability, updating and improving it as money becomes available. It relies upon the users of the system keeping their own machinery up to date and in good working order. This relies partly on goodwill and common sense, but also has a fall back system of regulation to enforce those things that it deems necessary to the safe and effective running of the system.

The behaviour of individuals within the system is moderated by a mixture of regulatory enforcement (police cars, MOTs, speed cameras), financial incentive (less accidents, lower insurance premiums) and appeals to their better nature (drink driving ads). Mostly it relies on the ideas that most people in the system are good and want it to perform well, even if only because it suits their own self-interest for it to do so.

This is the way with large, complex systems. Change in them has to be gradual. It has to take the system users along with it. It has to go largely with the grain of group understanding of the system. This is why, for example, experiments in removing road markings often fail – not because they don’t work, but because they are counter-intuitive.

If we could have reduced the rate of road deaths overnight in 1960 to that of the current era we could have saved another 200,000 lives. That is a large number. But it was unattainable. We desire overnight change because we can’t bear the thought of not saving everyone. Often this leads us not to make the small changes that can nearly save everyone.

I don’t have to spell out what I am saying here, you know what it is. Just get on and make the changes you can, rather than not making the ones you want to but can’t. The little changes add up. And for those they affect they do make the difference. There are 856,737 people who would vouch for that.