We must not lose focus on road safety

Northern Ireland has had a proud road safety record this decade – per capita, it has had the lowest fatality rate in the world. However, that has changed this year. Already there have been as many fatalities by mid-August in 2014 as there have been in the entirety of other years.

It is foolish to race to too many conclusions based on one year’s figures. However, it remains the case that we are losing focus. For example, I have no objection to a 20mph limit in Belfast City Centre, but this is unlikely to save a single life – it is an extreme rarity for anyone to be killed on a city centre road. On the other hand, I have long advocated a reduction in the single carriageway secondary road limit, because it is on that type of road where a hugely disproportionate number of casualties takes place – yet no one seems to mention this.

Wesley Johnston is the expert here, but a few other points from this year’s comparatively poor record do stand out:

– proportionately, an unbelievable share of fatalities this year are male (thus far over 90%);

– a significantly disproportionate share of fatalities and casualties for some time now have been cyclists or motorcyclists;

– a significant cause of the dramatic rise in fatalities this year has been head-on collisions (sometimes, sadly, accounting for multiple fatalities in a single incident).

The first of these was already being looked at, because it was long the case that males were likelier to be killed on our roads than females. However, this year that has been particularly marked. We do need to target more of our road safety education to take account of this.

The second of these has been taken more seriously in Great Britain – for example through its ‘THINK!’ advertising. It is my impression that drivers consider other vehicles but do not pay proper attention to the likelihood of cyclists or motorcyclists being nearby (not that this is entirely car drivers’ fault either, by the way). Also, the “engineering” aspect of road safety needs consideration – where possible, for example, cycle lanes should be separated from the road, not just random add-ons with markings.

The third of these I have long been concerned about. I was struck many years ago by adverts in farmers’ fields in Germany which showed a car pulling out to pass another car approaching a slight bend, with the simple words “Ihr letzter Fehler?” (“Your final mistake?) underneath – a very effective message.

We have – as a society, to be clear – come a long way on road safety in the past few years and one bad year does not remove all those advances. However, I cannot help but think we are losing focus (through campaigns such as the 20mph one), and not looking at the things which are really seeing people killed and injured.

When it comes to road safety, we cannot afford to miss the things which matter, because they cost lives. It’s time for a re-think in our education, our advertising and our emphasis.

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5 thoughts on “We must not lose focus on road safety

  1. William Allen says:

    I agree allowing 60mph on narrow winding country roads is madness. The truth is there is very little logic in how speed limits are assigned. Often we have dual carriageways with a 50mph limit while you can legally do 60 on a country lane.

  2. harryaswell says:

    Couldn’t agree more! The fact is that “speeding” per se accounts for only 5% of all accidents. A 20mph limit anywhere is unlikely to work because people will consider them as inappropriate. However, I live on the road between Killinchy and Saintfield, a “B” road. This is unfortunately used by lorries and fast cars on a regular basis. The road is not wide enough for two large vehicles to pass safely! A 40mph limit on roads such as these would be good! – Also a 50mph limit on the “A” road between Comber and Killyleagh and similar roads would be good too.

    • I know that road and you are spot on. I’ve also seen some unbelievable overtaking manoeuvres on it.

      Speed *is* a secondary consideration in almost all fatal accidents; but often “excess speed” bears no relation to the posted limit.

  3. I was pleased a few days ago to see a PSNI officer give an accurate comment on the primary causes of accidents. Very often we see the line “speeding is the primary cause of deaths on our roads”, but in fact only 12% of fatal crashes have speed as the primary cause. Speed is undoubtedly a contributory factor, along with things like the type of vehicle you’re in. But the *primary* cause of crashes is inattention / carelessness, which is the root cause of 33% of fatalities according to the PSNI. Reducing speed limits in selected locations will, if they are adhered to, reduce the severity of impacts, and thus a fatality may turn into a serious injury etc. However to eliminate road fatalities entirely by the method of reducing their severity by reducing speed limits, you’d need to reduce speed limits on all roads to somewhere around 20mph or less. The message with the greatest chance of actually preventing crashes in the first place is “watch where you’re going” which remains the biggest killer.

    Additionally, as Ian says above, deaths in urban areas are relatively uncommon and it is already rare in Northern Ireland for someone to die on a road with a 30mph speed limit. The vast majority of road deaths occur on rural roads subject to the national speed limit (which merely indicates the speed above which it is *illegal* to travel, not the speed at which it is *safe* to travel, which is by necessity primarily a matter of common sense). It is not possible to set a speed limit based on the speed at which it is safe to travel, as this will always depend on the conditions on the road at the time, e.g. light level, weather, other road users etc. A decision to reduce a speed limit on a rural roads to 50 or 40 would be done specifically because it is not safe to travel at 60, and this is sometimes appropriate. However if this is done in too many places, and becomes too common, drivers will start to assume that *all* rural speed limits are set at the safe level, and this will tend to take away the primary responsibility that remains on drivers on National Speed Limit roads to select their speed based on road conditions rather than what the government tells them is safe.

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