Select Committee on Transport Eleventh Report

1  Introduction

1.  It will be fifty years this December since the first motorway opened in Britain.[1] In 1958 there were seven million motor vehicles licensed in Britain, resulting in the deaths of 6,000 people.[2] By 2007 the number of licensed motor vehicles and vehicle mileage covered had increased by 400%, yet deaths had halved to below 3,000 - the lowest figure since records began in 1926. This is a remarkable achievement by all involved, right across the road safety spectrum.[3]

Figure 1: Road traffic deaths in Great Britain 1958-2007

Sources: Department for Transport, Road Casualties Great Britain 2007: Annual Report, September 2008, Table 1a; and Department for Transport, Transport Statistics Great Britain 2007, November 2007, Table 8.1.

2.  And yet, as is so often pointed out in progress reviews, the deaths of three thousand people and injuries to a quarter of a million are a staggering annual toll to pay for mobility. It is inconceivable that any transport system invented today would be accepted, no matter what its benefits, if it involved this level of carnage.

3.  Our witnesses pointed out how road accidents have an impact on society on multiple levels. At a personal level, road deaths are devastating not only for the victims but also for the families and friends left behind. Professor Danny Dorling of Sheffield University told us that road accidents were the largest single cause of death for people between the ages of 5 and 35 in Britain.[4] Road accidents cost our economy about 1.5% of GDP - some £18 billion each year.[5] Dealing with road safety is a major item of public expenditure[6] that extends far beyond the budgets and boundaries of the Department for Transport and its agencies. This involves not only the local highway authorities, and health and police services but also others whose involvement may not be so well appreciated.[7] The Fire and Rescue Service, for example, now spends a large proportion of its resources on dealing with road traffic collisions.[8] Road safety also affects wider transport policy. Making pedestrians and cyclists feel safer is crucial to promoting walking and cycling.[9] On the railways the largest risk of a catastrophic train accident comes from road vehicles, mainly at level crossings.[10]

4.  Few people, if any, would argue that we should not try to reduce the number of people killed and injured on our roads. Yet road safety is a contentious issue. Relatives of those killed in traffic collisions call for radical measures whilst restrictions on the rights of individuals to take risks are often strongly resisted by some motorists.[11] Even after detailed analysis, it is not easy to prove exactly which measures are effective. The Netherlands has seen impressive reductions in road deaths between 2004 and 2006. Yet the Dutch road safety institute SWOV concludes that "It has not been possible to find an explanation for […] two-thirds of the decrease."[12]

5.  Even the meaning of road safety is disputed. For some, as implied by the Government's casualty reduction target, safety is the absence of death and injury. By this count the UK does relatively well, with 'only' 5.4 deaths per 100,000 population - placing it sixth amongst European countries after Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.[13] In contrast, the USA has almost 15 deaths per 100,000 population. Yet for others, road safety implies freedom from the dangers associated with motor vehicles. These dangers may not always lead to accidents but the threat can impose restrictions on the people's daily lives, particularly for children, older people and those wishing to walk or travel on two wheels. Some of our witnesses emphasised the need to reduce dangers at source and not to unduly restrict the freedoms of vulnerable road users, which may have other, undesirable consequences.

6.  In this Report, we examine the progress made in reducing death and injuries and in reducing danger to vulnerable road users. We focus on the diverging trends between deaths and serious injuries. We then identify the key actions and delivery mechanisms that we believe are needed to reduce casualties dramatically beyond 2010. In particular, we highlight the need for a step-change in approach, overseen by a high-level independent body to ensure consistent, cross-departmental support.

1   The Preston Bypass was officially opened on 5 December 1958. It now forms junctions 29-32 of the M6. Back

2   Department for Transport, Transport Statistics Great Britain 2007, November 2007, Tables 8.1 and 9.1. In 1958 there were 7,175,000 motor vehicles licensed, 107 billion vehicle billion kilometres and 5,970 people killed. In 2006 there were 33,369,000 motor vehicles and 511 billion vehicle kilometres; in 2007 2,946 people were killed. Back

3   Department for Transport, Road Casualties Great Britain 2007: Annual Report, September 2008. This annual publication is the main source of information about casualties. As the title suggests, it provides only basic information about casualties in Northern Ireland. The figures quoted in our Report are therefore mostly for Great Britain.  Back

4   Ev 323 Back

5   Ev 333 Back

6   The Minister and official were unable to say what percentage of the Department for Transport's budget was allocated for road safety. See Q 428. Back

7   Q 153 Back

8   Ev 349 Back

9   Q 312  Back

10   Ev 315 Back

11   Ev 133 Back

12   "Why is the UK no longer number one for road safety fatalities?" Local Transport Today, 21 March 2008, pp14-17 Back

13   Department for Transport, Road Casualties Great Britain 2007: Annual Report, September 2008, Table 51 Back

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Prepared 29 October 2008