As we approach the next general election, we consider how road safety has fared in the last 13 years – and where any incoming government could do better.
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By Craig Thomas
The UK has one of the safest road networks anywhere in the world, with only seven countries having fewer road fatalities per person. It was the third safest country in Europe in 2020, behind Norway and Sweden.
Having some of the safest roads globally still means huge human and economic costs from road collisions, however. The bald statistics of an average of 1,700 deaths and 27,000 seriously injured, at an economic cost of £34bn, don’t begin to do justice to the trauma endured by those affected.
And after two decades of real progress, which included halving fatalities, we seem to have stalled in the last 13 years. Only four countries in Europe made less progress than the UK in reducing road deaths between 2010 and 2020. The UK’s 20% reduction (a sizeable proportion of which was achieved in 2020, with its lockdowns) was some way below the 37% average across the EU.
It is significant that we’ve had seven Secretaries of State for Transport in the last 13 years, 18 Ministers for Transport and, following the recent reshuffle, 26 Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State for Transport.
All the ministerial decision-making changes perhaps explains why the government hasn’t updated the nation’s Strategic Framework for Road Safety since 2011. And unlike the two previous National Road Safety Strategies, that 2011 document contained no road safety reduction targets.
The government announced in August 2021 that it was working on a new framework, drawing on the Safe Systems approach.
Even more telling has been the current Prime Minister’s suggestion to roll back on 20mph speed limits, the very initiative that has proven to save lives. A 20mph speed limits in areas of London has contributed towards a reduction in the number of children killed or seriously injured on the roads, according to the British Medical Journal.
That has been followed by the withdrawal of statutory guidance published at the end of the first lockdown in May 2020 that aimed to “build on and embed the increases in walking and cycling seen during that time” and directed local authorities to take measures to reallocate road space for walking and cycling.
The political winds are constantly shifting and should a new governing party gain power when the general election arrives in either 2024 or 2025, they will have a pretty full inbox, with the economy taking up a great deal of its bandwidth in the first few years of office.
There will be a long list of spending priorities and road safety professionals will have to lobby loudly for attention.
Even within the field of road safety, a new government will have numerous competing priorities, but a new Strategic Framework must be top of the new Secretary of State for Transport’s list, establishing a Safe Systems approach as a foundation for future road safety initiatives.
Undoubtedly, the Treasury will want to limit any spending demands from the DfT, but even bean counters should see the benefit from saving £34bn a year on road collisions alone.
CIHT is looking at the latest in road safety policy, education and behavioural change initiatives in our Road Safety Masterclass (Thursday, 16 November 2023).
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