Expert Blog

Crashes and their causes

The history of road safety is a happy one. It generally keeps on getting better. Thirty years ago, 5,599 people were killed in reported road accidents. Last year, it was 1,775. That’s a full 68 per cent lower.

There will be many explanations for this. Cars have become safer, for both those inside them and those unfortunate enough to be hit by them. Roads and the safety paraphernalia on them have become more sophisticated. Drivers are now better educated and more aware. Indeed, as we’ve highlighted before, attitudes towards drink-driving have changed beyond recognition over the past few decades – and fewer people are dying as a result.

But each accident is still a tragedy, and some years still throw up more of those tragedies than before. This, sadly, is what the statistics for last year – published at the end of June – reveal. The number of reported road casualties in 2014, which includes deaths as well as both serious and slight injuries, was actually 6 per cent higher than in 2013. The Department for Transport describes this as a “statistically significant change,” meaning that it probably didn’t come about by chance. There were reasons for it.

So, what are those reasons? The Department for Transport’s statistical release actually has a stab at providing some. Among the possibilities is last year’s weather. Apparently, this was mostly warmer and milder than in 2013 – which you might think would be good for preventing road accidents, but it’s not. Bad weather tends to mean that we either stay indoors or use safer forms of transport, such as cars and buses, rather than bikes or our own feet. Whereas good weather sees more of us out on the tarmac, which means more potential victims.

But perhaps the most intriguing of the Department for Transport’s hypotheses is the economic one. As they put it, “there is evidence to suggest that economic recessions have accelerated decreases in road traffic deaths.” You can see some of that evidence in this Swedish report, but it’s a similar story to the weather explanation: good economic conditions bring people out on to the roads; bad conditions keep them indoors. And so, as our economy improves, as it did in 2014, our roads are potentially more hazardous.

It’s an unsettling thought: that great unknowables such as the weather and the economy, could usher you into a road accident. But, before you start shivering with fear, it’s worth remembering the greater trends. 2014 still had the third lowest number of fatalities on record, behind 2012 and 2013. The technological advances of the future, including the driverless revolution, will no doubt bring even lower numbers. 

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