Page last updated at 18:32 GMT, Tuesday, 15 December 2009
Crash: Death on Britain's roads

Car accident
Three teenagers and a 21-year-old man died in this late night crash

By Adrian Brown
BBC News

For an everyday activity, travelling by road is probably the riskiest thing many of us do on a regular basis.

On average, some seven people are killed every day on the roads in Great Britain. Hundreds more are injured, many of them seriously, often with life changing consequences.

In 2008 alone, 2,538 people died and nearly a quarter of a million were injured.

In the past 10 years, the death toll has amounted to 32,298. As such road crashes are the largest single cause of accidental death for people aged between 5 and 35 years.


Compared with other forms of transport travelling by road is far deadlier than going by train, plane or boat.

Yet for some reason it's largely tolerated. These deaths generate little of the coverage or thundering newspaper commentary that typically follow fatal rail accidents or those involving aircraft.

Hatfield train crash scene
Train crashes are dramatic but cause far fewer casualties

"There's still fatalism about it all," says Professor Murray Mackay, who began studying road crashes back in the 1960s. "Road casualties, like the poor, are always with us."

"We know that communities are terribly concerned about the road deaths they see reported week in, week out in their local papers," says Cathy Keeler, deputy chief executive of Brake, a charity that supports those bereaved by road crashes.

"This is an epidemic that strikes indiscriminately, affecting people of all ages, devastating communities. If more than 30,000 people had been killed on trains or planes in the last ten years there would be a national outcry and politicians would be falling over themselves in the rush to implement policies to stop the carnage," she adds.

The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety [Pacts], the leading parliamentary advisory group, has called the annual death toll on the roads, a "scandal of tolerance" and called on the government to do more to reduce the carnage.

The government first set a target for reducing the annual toll in 1995 - almost a century after the first recorded death road accident in 1896.


In 2000 the government set a series of targets to further reduce the level of annual death and injury by 2010, goals that were reached by the beginning of this year.

In 2000 the government set the following targets to be reached by 2010.

a 40% reduction in the number of people killed or seriously injured in road accidents, compared with the average for 1994-98
a 50% reduction in the number of children killed or seriously injured
a 10% reduction in the number of people suffering slight injuries per 100m vehicle kilometres

There are now some 1,000 fewer people dying than in 1999, and fewer injuries.

Most agree that this fall is a result of three key factors; better car design, improved road engineering, and changing driver behaviour, in particular driving at slower speeds.

Thanks to the EuroNCap scheme which test crashes all new cars, in-car safety has improved dramatically.

Established in the late 1990s, its initial results were met with dismay by many in the car industry and commentators alike.

Edmund King, president of the AA, said that seeing those early test crashes made him physically sick and he vowed never to travel in certain cars.

Like seat belt wearing which became compulsory in 1983 (saving an estimated 50,000 car occupant lives over the next 20 years) the crash test results were resisted until some in the industry began using their star rating to help sell their cars.

Many of the models that were awarded a single star for safety now have a full five star rating. The design improvements which followed have contributed to reducing the annual death and injury toll.

Huge decrease

Better road engineering has also contributed. Road junctions with better line of sight, and traffic calming measures, have had an effect, as do - more controversially - speed cameras.

Changing driver behaviour such as lower average speeds has also put a dent in the statistics.

"There's been a huge decrease in speed this millennium," says Professor Steve Stradling of Napier University.

In 2000, some 67% exceeded 30mph in built-up areas, whereas by 2007, that proportion was down to 48%. Speeding in excess of 35mph is also down by a third.

This decrease has helped save lives and reduce injuries, says Professor Stradling, particularly in built-up areas. The picture in out-of-town areas is less encouraging.

Here the statistics have remained stubbornly high, for reasons less related to outright speeding, and more to do with driving too fast for the conditions.

Single vehicle, loss of control, crashes are very common on rural single carriageway roads, particularly where a young driver is behind the wheel.


The government had been due to release its next 10-year strategy this month, but postponed it while a report is prepared on changing the law on drink-driving which alone accounts for 20% of all road deaths.

20mph sign
Research shows that 20mph zones can cut injuries by 40%

Its stated ambition in the next 10 years is to make Britain's roads the "safest in the world". How it gets there is still a matter of debate.

Smarter car technology is one way, with the emphasis moving to protecting vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists, as well as further protecting car occupants.

As well as changing the road environment through 20mph zones, this is also likely to involve more intrusive technology in the car which guides or even controls speed in certain environments and conditions.

The government has itself highlighted Intelligent Speed Adaption, a system that regulates speed in the car, as having the potential to substantially reduce death and injury on the roads.

But there is a looming battle ahead over changing car use.

"We need to puncture some of the myths around cars," says executive director of Pacts, Robert Gifford. "The car combines two appealing concepts; autonomy and mobility. The trouble is everyone wants both.

"We no longer live in the 1950s where cars can go where and when they like. We live in the 21st Century where we need to manage the car so that it retains its benefits but we limit the damage it can do to other people."

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific