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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 August 2006, 02:37 GMT 03:37 UK
Are Britain's roads getting safer?
By Lucy Wilkins
BBC News

The first recorded road death in a motor accident in Britain was in London 110 years ago on Wednesday. More than a century on, roads may be busier than ever - but are they any safer?

On 17 August, 1896, a South London housewife entered the history books by being run over.

Traffic accident
In the year to March 2006, 268,900 people were hurt or killed on roads

Bridget Driscoll, 44, became the first person recorded to have died in a motor accident in Britain when her visit to a fete in Crystal Palace ended in tragedy.

She apparently froze with fear at the sight of a Roger-Benz approaching and was knocked down by motorist Arthur Edsell going at 4mph.

The 20-year-old driver was a car company worker, and there were reports he had adjusted the engine to increase its maximum speed to 8mph.

Ever since that first death - and the first recorded death of a driver 18 months later - the number of vehicles on the roads has multiplied.

Driving further

According to the Department for Transport, in 1930 there were only 2.3 million motor vehicles in Great Britain, but more than 7,000 people were killed in road accidents.

In contrast nowadays there are more vehicles but fewer deaths - there are more than 27 million vehicles and 3,180 people were killed in the 12 months to March this year, provisional results show.

It's peculiar that we never expect a bank robber to stop and report their robbery, but we do expect a person who has crashed their car to stop and phone the police
Andrew Howard
AA Motoring Trust

The Department for Transport is meeting its 10-year safety target of cutting the number of road accident deaths and injuries to 40% of the 1994-98 average - which saw a total of 319,928 casualties.

Five years into the policy, the statistics show casualties are 33% below the earlier average.

In actual numbers, 268,900 people were either injured or killed in the 12 months to this March.

The policy also aimed to cut child casualties by 50% - which it has already achieved.

But are Britain's roads really becoming safer? The statistics paint a confusing picture.

Many road accidents, where there are slight injuries or even more severe ones, bypass police records.

Traffic jam
Traffic kilometres reached 500 billion last year

This could be because some of the people involved in accidents do not want to tell the police because they are uninsured, unlicensed, or drunk, says head of road safety at the AA Motoring Trust, Andrew Howard.

"It's peculiar that we never expect a bank robber to stop and report their robbery, but we do expect a person who has crashed their car to stop and phone the police," he says.

But even if injuries are reported, it does not mean the police will record them. The severity of the injury will also be under-estimated, research in the 1990s suggested.

"The combined effect of under-reporting, under-recording and misclassification suggests that there may be 2.76 times as many seriously injured casualties than are recorded in the national casualty figures and 1.70 times as many slight casualties," the DfT says.

In June, three Oxford University researchers queried the figures after comparing them to hospital admissions from road accidents.

The DfT statistics showed a fall from 85.9 people killed or seriously injured per 100,000 in 1996 to 59.4 per 100,000 in 2004.

For every 100 accidents reported, there's 180 that aren't reported
Paul Smith
Safe Speed

However, hospital admissions were almost unchanged at 90 per 100,000 in 1996 and 91.1 in 2004.

They said the disparity was probably due to under-reporting and/or fewer minor injuries.

"The findings from hospital admission statistics cast doubt on whether there were reductions in serious road injuries from 1996 to 2004 and on whether the government's targets either overall or for children will be met by 2010," the researchers concluded.

Statistical 'utopia'

But for Mr Howard the discrepancy is understandable.

"The idea of every roadside injury being linked to a hospital report is utopia," he said.

Roads remain dangerous places, say safety campaigners.

Paul Smith, from Safe Speed, said: "For every 100 accidents reported, there's 180 that aren't reported."

Cars are safer, paramedics better trained, there are more air ambulances and roads have improved, said Mr Smith.

The only factor that has not changed is drivers who "are getting worse" in his opinion.

He urged the department to focus on educating drivers about their responsibilities, rather than just getting them to drive slower.

But Mr Howard, from the AA Motoring Trust, is encouraged by the statistics.

"My view, and I would say this is true of most of those involved in road safety, is that the statistics do show the roads are getting safer."


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