Select Committee on Economic Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 360-380)

Professor Andrew Evans

14 FEBRUARY 2006

  Q360  Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: Professor Evans, if you have an evidence-based framework for the amount of money spent on safety in transport and that can be offered to politicians and officials in the public sector, to what extent do you think those politicians should allow pressures, either from the public, from the media or from other politicians to influence investment patterns? Do you think they should stand by the evidence-based framework, backed by experts perhaps like yourself?

  Professor Evans: In short, yes, they should. We should remember that willingness-to-pay is public preferences, they are elicited in a fairly controlled manner rather than in the somewhat chaotic manner they might be elicited in the newspapers after an accident, but essentially willingness-to-pay means that you are trying to base your valuations on the preferences of the public, so in that sense the public preferences are counted and they are indeed the basis on which we are doing it. As far as the media are concerned, in my view measuring column inches is not a very good basis for making policies, though it may be difficult to avoid that, because the media, particularly newspapers, it seems to me, publish what is newsworthy and, in particular, newsworthy events are events that happen quite rarely and therefore get undue attention. I say undue—from the newspapers' point of view it is perfectly sensible attention, but from the point of view of policy-making you have to take the rarity of the events into account.

  Q361  Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: But you will understand the pressure that elected politicians are under when they are accused of not listening to what the public wants and its preference in terms of investment in the area of safety. Can you think, therefore, of a better mechanism that would help them defend their evidence-based framework? Should they be more prominent, more familiar, more accessible before the accident happens so that people can rely on it more?

  Professor Evans: I cannot think of any other way of doing it. In some ways the trouble is that people are not interested in this sort of material until an accident happens, but the more the bodies involved can be explicit about what their criteria are, the more defensible the position is after an event.

  Q362  Lord Skidelsky: Could I ask a supplementary? Your written evidence suggests that the subjective value people attach rises with real income. Why should that be? I could think of a lot of general reasons, but I wonder what you think?

  Professor Evans: I would expect that, simply because the valuation of many things goes up with real income, people can afford to spend more on safety.

  Q363  Lord Skidelsky: They can afford to spend more on safety, but this is the value they attach to a life going up. Why should the willingness-to-pay go up with real income? I can see why the figure would go up with nominal income, but I wonder why with real income?

  Professor Evans: I am not clear what you are getting at, I am afraid.

  Q364  Lord Skidelsky: Why do richer people value their lives more than poorer people?

  Professor Evans: Because they can afford to spend more.

  Q365  Lord Skidelsky: Proportionately more.

  Professor Evans: Yes, I would say proportionately more. We are not talking about lives now, we are talking about spending on reducing risk by small amounts, and I would say if you have got more to spend you can reduce your risk pretty effectively if you can afford it.

  Q366  Lord Sheppard of Didgemere: Can we stay on the subject of costs and what some of the costs mean? Your written evidence implies that the Department for Transport values the prevention of a statistical road fatality at some £1.4 million. What actually does that mean? Does it mean that all road safety improvements that involve a cost per fatality prevented of less than £1.4 million are actually undertaken, and if not why not et cetera et cetera?

  Professor Evans: We do not have comprehensive, systematic information about the costs of adopted road safety measures. We have quite a lot of rather piecemeal kind of evidence, of which I quoted a little bit in my evidence, so we cannot say definitely the answer to that question, but there seems pretty conclusive evidence that there are many safety measures which could be implemented at a cost of less than £1.4 million which are not undertaken, so that is the short answer. Why are things not undertaken? I would say, in the short run, budget constraints with the safety authorities, particularly local authorities; secondly, also in the short run, staffing constraints, because a lot of road safety measures are quite staff-intensive and even if you had a lot more money you could not use that in the short run because the staffing levels are determined by the sorts of monies that have been available at present. With some road safety measures you run into public acceptability issues. For example, the evidence seems to be that by having more enforcement cameras we could reduce road risks at a cost of less than £1.4 million per prevented fatality. But there is a lot of discussion about whether the public will accept more safety cameras. Those three, therefore, are the general reasons. The last question, should not something be done, I think there is a good case on those grounds to allocate more resources to road safety, and that has been the case and continues to be the case for some time. This is an interesting question, whether it should be up to the point where the costs of preventing fatalities equal the value of preventing fatalities because of public sector budget constraints. In general, we do not spend up to the level where costs equal benefits because we have budget constraints and also because there is opportunity cost to public funds. It costs more than a pound to raise a pound of public money.

  Q367  Lord Sheldon: Surely, if you were to spend the £1.4 million for the 3,000 people who die every year, how much would you reduce the number of accidents by? The trouble is, you do not know just where to spend this money. It is a bit difficult to see how these figures are worked out.

  Professor Evans: I do not know the answer, but I think we would reduce it pretty substantially but not to zero—obviously not to zero. I cannot give you a figure off the top of my head but one could reduce it over time by a substantial proportion.

  Q368  Lord Sheldon: Of course, the more money you spend, the more likely you are to reduce accidents.

  Professor Evans: Indeed.

  Q369  Lord Sheldon: But knowing in advance where that money should be spent is to know in advance where those accidents are going to occur, which is much more difficult. It is very much a theoretical exercise, is it not?

  Professor Evans: One is reliant essentially on past experience as to where accidents happen and what the effects are. I am thinking in particular, when I say the costs are below the value, of local road safety engineering measures, and there is quite a lot of experience of them. It is that experience of the past that gives us an estimate of what the benefits will be. Safety enforcement cameras would be another example; we have got quite a bit of experience and they are pretty good value for money.

  Q370  Lord Skidelsky: Professor Evans, your written evidence says that the cost of adopted road safety measures is less than the VPF, whereas the cost of rail safety measures is greater. Does that suggest an inconsistency in applying the principles of risk assessment across different transport sectors and, to go on from that, does it suggest that too much is being spent on rail safety?

  Professor Evans: I think it certainly implies an inconsistency, although I could qualify that by saying the inconsistency is less than it was because it is only in the last decade or so—a bit more than a decade—that the railways have appealed to a value of preventing fatalities at all, so they are at least anchored together now in a way that they were not. We are in a position where on the whole in road safety the value of preventing fatalities is treated as a maximum, we would not do any safety measures that cost more than that, whereas on the rail it tends to be regarded as a minimum—if we can save a life by that we must do it and we might do a bit more than that. There is an inconsistency, therefore, in general attitude there. As I have said, we could usefully spend more resources on road safety, but it is another question whether it should come from rail safety measures, which I am less sure about.

  Q371  Lord Skidelsky: Do you think the inconsistency is a cultural one, the attitude to the motor car as opposed to the railway service?

  Professor Evans: I think I probably would, yes. If you raise the question later I shall come back to it, but there is a long tradition on the railways, particularly in certain sorts of accidents, of taking the view that if you can do something you should do something.

  Q372  Lord Vallance of Tummel: Looking again at your written evidence, Figure 1, we can see over a 30 year period there is a steep decline in accidental fatalities and then, perhaps rather perversely, over the last ten years, when there has been an unprecedented interest in health and safety, the trend has flattened out. What do you think of the public policy implications of this and has the law of diminishing returns set in, or should we be looking at more radical options, even though they might impinge on individual freedoms—such as banning motorcycles or whatever?

  Professor Evans: I do not think there are any obvious policy implications of that drop. I do not think you can say that because we have not had a reduction in the last decade that somehow we have fallen behind and therefore we should do more than we otherwise would. On your last point, as I have tried to indicate before, I do not think we are at the stage of diminishing returns with regard to safety measures, certainly on the roads and possibly on the railways as well. What is efficient is always changing with technology as well—things that are now thinkable were not thinkable 20 years ago. I would not favour the sorts of draconian bans that have been mentioned, largely because for road safety it is necessary to get the public on side because, in the end, we do not wish to criminalise many otherwise law-abiding citizens, and therefore what the public will accept is quite a limitation in road safety. Banning using the car to drive to work, for example, if the public transport was a good alternative, is not a way forward. If you want to reduce road use—and there may sometimes be a case for that and safety may be part of that case, but only part of it—then pricing seems to be the obvious mechanism, which is very much on the agenda. One of the reasons why cost-benefit appraisal is used a lot in transport is that you do rely on valuations of the users to quite a high degree—in other words, you do not try and second-guess the users, but to get the users to act efficiently you need the right price.

  Q373  Lord Vallance of Tummel: How would that impact on motorcycles, which are perhaps the highest risk form of transport? They are at the moment exempt from such pricing.

  Professor Evans: From the safety point of view that was a questionable decision and it is certainly true that motorcycles have risks per kilometre that are far higher than any other mode of transport. If we had not invented them it is questionable whether we would, but we have and they are very useful for some people, so again I do not think I would ban them.

  Q374  Lord Roper: As far as diminishing returns on rail are concerned, your written evidence suggests that the cost for each prevented fatality associated with the introduction of the Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS) is significantly higher than the value placed on a prevented fatality in normal safety investment assessments. Does this imply that the decision to introduce TPWS is inconsistent with the normal rail safety assessment guidelines, or could you say something about the other benefits of introducing TPWS and reducing accidents which presumably justify it?

  Professor Evans: One needs to distinguish between TPWS as implemented and TPWS as originally proposed. I drew attention to that distinction by quoting the House of Commons evidence that they had received from Mr Armitt, the Chief Executive of Network Rail, where the original proposal for the Train Protection and Warning System had a cost of preventing fatalities that was almost certainly less than £3 million, when you take the other benefits of preventing train collisions into account. At the time also, I should say, the railways valuation of a prevented fatality was higher than the £1.4 million it now is, so at the time with the lower initial cost the Train Protection and Warning System was within shouting distance, shall we say, of the official valuation; in that sense it was not wildly out of line. I would also say that TPWS is a very clear case. Its characteristics are—again as I have tried to indicate in my written evidence—that there was a known and persistent risk. The data on the kind of accidents that would be prevented by TPWS are remarkably clear—they were risks that went on and on, not very frequent but very persistent. Until Automatic Train Protection came along there was no technical solution to it, but then suddenly we had a technical solution and in the case of TPWS quite a cost-effective one as well, and there was also a clear railway responsibility there, because if ever there was a class of accident that was not the victim's fault, it was that one. The situation is you have a known risk, you can do something about it, it is the railways' responsibility. Back to your question about accountability, there is a very strong tradition in that situation of saying you should do it and that was a very strong argument. In that situation, therefore, given the original costs, it seems a good buy and so that would be a case where I think I would have exercised political judgment—if it had been my responsibility—in favour of it. That is an example of a situation where, as it were, you should have discretion, you should not regard the values as gospel. The further expenditure for the last five fatalities which I mentioned, I do not know how that happened and obviously the case for that is a lot weaker.

  Q375  Lord Sheldon: The rail industry was opposed to Automatic Train Protection but it welcomed the Train Protection and Warning System. Was it because it was cheaper?

  Professor Evans: The tone of the description of resolute resistance is slightly in error. It is not true to say that the British Railways Board, which was the key body at the time, was resolutely resistant. In fact, the history is that the British Railways Board committed itself to installing Automatic Train Protection—it did not resist it—in November 1988, really as soon as it became a practicable possibility, and essentially for the same grounds as later TPWS was approved. It was a known risk, you had a technical solution, we are a responsible operator, therefore we should install the safety measure. That was essentially the line of argument, but there is no reference to costs in that argument as I have just said it. It was in those circumstances that the British Railways Board ordered equipment for the Chiltern and Great Western lines in order to develop it to a working level for the whole network. So in the late Eighties and earlier Nineties they were very keen on it. What made them change their minds, as they did in the end, was that (a) they got more reliable estimates of cost than they previously had, and it turned out to be pretty high, and (b) they had more reliable estimates than they previously had of how many lives it could be expected to save, and when they divided the latter into the former they got a very high figure which they felt they could not justify. They felt you could spend better safety resources, even within the railways, and save more lives in other ways. One of the British Railways Board's last acts before it handed over to Railtrack in March 1994 was to advise the Secretary of State against network-wide installation of ATP. They were convinced by the argument, but it was still against their nature in a way as a responsible railway operator. Just to complete the story, when the Secretary of State received that recommendation he referred it to the Health and Safety Executive who were the safety regulators, and they in turn said that they considered it to be not reasonably practicable by their normal criteria. I have forgotten the exact wording, but it was something like that. The Secretary of State concurred with that decision, so it was in the end a collective decision not to do it, essentially on the grounds of cost and with TPWS being developed as a cheaper alternative. They did decide against it, therefore, but in a sense reluctantly. Part of the reason for that is that the train drivers were driving very safely. It is because they were so good at obeying red signals that you got so little return on devices to help them. On the question of the change of heart about TPWS, I said there is a much stronger case because the cost is lower—or at least in the original form it was—but I think once it is mandated it is not in the interest of anybody in the railway community to say we do not want it, because it does save them from accidents that they really do not want. Likewise, the public will also welcome it provided that the taxpayer is paying for it and it does not affect the fares.

  Q376  Chairman: The last question we have got is, in your view, how should the safety levels on different transport modes be compared: risk per passenger-mile, risk per passenger-hour or risk per journey, the three options we have got down here? How would you do the comparison?

  Professor Evans: The answer to that is it depends on the purpose for which you are doing the comparison, and I will try and give some illustrations. I have used all three of those measures for different purposes and I might try and use some illustrations. I gave an example of the access risk in my written evidence of rail journeys and I tried to show that in fact the access risk of rail journeys is bigger than the risk on the train journey itself, and for that purpose I was using per journey as the divisor and I think it is appropriate because there are two accesses, one at each end, and that is independent of the length of the rail journey. Within that calculation I used walking kilometres and driving kilometres as measuring the risk in the access process, so I combined journeys and kilometres or miles covered in I hope a sensible way. For some other purposes I think risks per hour are very interesting, and one of the purposes for which they are very interesting is that you can calculate passenger risk per hour as the Department for Transport does and as I have done. One of the uses of that measure is that you can compare travelling per hour with doing other things per hour, which you cannot on any other measure, but I did not produce any results of doing that in my written evidence because I have not got anything that I regard as sufficiently up-to-date. When I last did it, one of the interesting findings was that, for most people who do not do exotic things like risky sports, travel is the most risky thing you do, especially travel as a pedestrian. We all do it, and there are very few activities that have a higher risk per hour. That seems interesting to me and it is another reason for devoting resources to road safety.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Lord Skidelsky.

  Q377  Lord Skidelsky: Two quick ones, if we have got time, My Lord Chairman. I just want to go back to the willingness-to-pay methodology. Would you say that the value attached to preventing fatal accidents as measured by willingness-to-pay is less for road transport than for rail transport?

  Professor Evans: The only piece of evidence that I am aware of, and it is very specific evidence, has actually been prepared by your Specialist Adviser, who did a study—he can correct me if I am wrong after I have left the room—for the Health and Safety Executive and, essentially, in a more careful way than I can describe tried to ask people that very question: "are you willing to pay more to prevent an accident as a railway passenger than you are as a road user?" And the answer to that was "no, we are not". They got the same value. They even repeated it, very interestingly. The first study was done in 1998, which was about halfway between the Southall and the Ladbroke Grove railway accidents, and they repeated the study after Ladbroke Grove. They found that people were willing to pay slightly more when Ladbroke Grove was in people's minds, but negligibly more, not much more. The answer was the same even then.

  Q378  Lord Skidelsky: So the culture should not be constrained on safety measures?

  Professor Evans: If you rely on willingness-to-pay I agree with you.

  Q379  Lord Skidelsky: Just one last question, to go back to the assumption that as societies become wealthier they become more risk averse, which seems to be the common view. If you believe, as the Prime Minister seems to, that we are in danger of becoming excessively risk averse—that would be the tenor of his big speech last year—how does the Government act to counter this natural tendency towards increasing risk aversion, if it believes that that is not a healthy development? By reducing the volume of safety regulation as the natural risk aversion increases? I know it is not a question one can answer quickly, but do you think there is a danger that we are becoming too risk averse?

  Professor Evans: I think there is a possible danger that we are putting too much weight in some areas and not enough in other areas. One thing that I had not thought about that struck me as I prepared the graph in Figure 1, which is the graph of trends in accidental death, I suspect that most of the deaths in that graph are actually in private arenas rather than public arenas—the two big groups are roads, which is a mixture of public and private, and at home which is almost entirely private. I suspect that a lot of the large "Other" group is also largely private, sporting accidents and that kind of thing. Therefore, in a way, a lot of what this risk regulation is about is attacking a rather narrow field of total deaths.

  Q380  Lord Sheldon: I am just looking at table 4 in your report and I am looking at the access modes. It seems that walking is the most dangerous of all the access modes.

  Professor Evans: Absolutely, apart from motorcycling, which is not in that table. Motorcycling is even worse, but I have omitted it from the table because it is not much used in access to rail journeys. One of the surprising things about this piece of work we did is the amount of walking that is associated with rail journeys, something I had not guessed. My estimate is that 5 per cent of all walking is to and from mainline railway stations, and probably another 5 per cent is to and from underground stations, because they are about the same number of journeys. So that accounts for a lot of walking, and that is why it is important in that table, it is about a kilometre for every rail journey. Motorcycling has got higher risks, but there is a great deal less of it associated with rail journeys.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. You have answered a lot of questions in jolly quick time.

We are most grateful to you for that and we are grateful to you for coming. You have been very helpful to us and you have been spot-on some of these areas we are most concerned about. Thank you very much indeed.

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