Dr Adrian Davis: No trade-off between accidents and keeping traffic moving is the zero sum game

Dr Adrian Davis, Professor of Transport & Health at Edinburgh Napier University's Transport Research Institute
Dr Adrian Davis, Professor of Transport & Health at Edinburgh Napier University's Transport Research Institute
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Listening to the ­traffic news is probably part of your morning routine. You tune in, if only to ensure ­nothing has happened which will disrupt your preferred road or rail route.

News of an ‘accident’ on the City of Edinburgh bypass, the M72, A9, A82 or anywhere else then fades and merges into the rest of the headlines.

It doesn’t affect you. End of ­story. But not for the loved ones of the dead or physically and emotionally injured from the road ‘accidents’ which ­happen day in, day out.

The following day it will happen again, another groundhog news item. Five people die or are seriously injured each day on Scottish roads. It seems somewhat perverse that we can predict with reasonable accuracy how many as a result of these ‘accidents’ next year. The term ‘accident’ itself should get a bad press. The Oxford English Dictionary says an accident is “an event that happens by chance or that is without apparent or deliberate cause”.

Well, if something happens by chance then we should not be able to reasonably predict the numbers of deaths and serious injuries on the roads each year. If most injuries and their precipitating events are predictable and preventable, then, as a ­society, we should be able to eradicate at least those collisions which result in deaths and life-changing injuries.

What we have done instead is to accept that casualties will occur but to set arguably modest targets for annual declines.

There is another way. In 1997, the Swedish parliament introduced Vision Zero, which differs fundamentally from earlier approaches. Across the globe it is seen as the leading approach to road safety; now part of Safe Systems and endorsed and ­promoted by major international agencies like the World Health Organisation.

‘Zero’ means zero deaths and life-changing injuries on Sweden’s road network. It was no longer acceptable to have a trade-off where deaths and serious injuries are a price to be paid for mobility.

Zero won’t happen tomorrow but the Swedes have more than halved their fatality levels since 1997, vying only with the Netherlands as world leaders in reducing deaths and ­injuries on the roads.

This is not to knock Scotland’s efforts. Scotland has seen a 37 per cent reduction in deaths from the baseline of 2004-08 to 2017. But an important missing piece of the jigsaw here is exposure. Casualties could go down, not least if we walk and cycle less, the modes more ­vulnerable to harm from motor ­vehicle users.

However, this would mean that the roads are not getting safer, and ­discouraging active travel also undermines other efforts to reduce the ­disease burden and NHS costs. Road safety should be defined as freedom from fear of harm or injury in and around the road environment, but generally means the ‘unsafety’ of the transport system.

We need a major shift in approach. Where is our Vision Zero/Safe System? Safe ­Systems approaches require ­proactivity; action should be taken to make the transport system safe, rather than waiting for events to occur and reacting. All parts of the system must be strengthened to ­multiply their effects so that if one part fails, road users are still protected. No death or ­serious injury should be accepted in the mobility system.

Scotland’s Road Safety Framework is due for renewal over the course of the next year and we need something which is truly preventive. ­Prevention is a core element of ­public health work, a ­discipline in which I trained. ­Arguably, there are key public health tools that could help road safety achieve a step change.

Let’s consider population level strategies which engage with all or most citizens rather than approaches targeted at high risk ‘outlier’ groups. Through this approach, small changes across whole populations can achieve big health gains, for ­example, seat belts.

Think about speed limits and speeds driven, a critical element of Safe Systems Road Safety. Around half of those killed and seriously injured occur on built-up roads where the speed limits are mostly 30mph.

The majority of drivers break the 30mph speed limit. If we can bring down average speeds from the mid-30s to the mid-20s in urban areas, the amount of kinetic energy – the force that leads to the deaths and serious injuries – reduces to levels where deaths are rare, serious injuries ­infrequent and there are less hospitalisations.

This is an opportunity in front of us. Scottish Government ­support for the Safer Streets Bill published in ­September by MSP Mark Ruskell, for a default 20mph across Scotland would provide a major opportunity to eradicate the needless scourge of road deaths and serious injuries.

Implementing Safe Systems would not mean the traffic news is cancelled, but 35 more people each week across Scotland could be going home rather than to ­hospital or the morgue.

Dr Adrian Davis, professor of transport & health at Edinburgh Napier University’s Transport Research Institute.