Yes, roads are safer. But not safe enough.

It might not seem appropriate to talk about road safety in the middle of a global pandemic that has disrupted the entire transport sector. But the coronavirus crisis will pass and is already receding in many countries. After a period of silence during the lockdowns, our roads have returned to their previous activity, even if they are not quite as busy as before. And questions about road safety are back as the latest European Union statistics show. The EU’s figures for 2019 reveal that while road safety is improving, they are not falling fast enough to meet Europe’s targets.

Sweden has EU’s safest roads

The figures published by the European Commission before the summer show that 22,800 people were killed in road crashes in EU in 2019, which represents a drop of 2% compared with 2018. Over the decade from 2010, when around 29,800 people died on Europe’s roads, this represents a fall of 23%. The average number of people killed on European roads in 2019 is 51 people per million – the lowest rate for any continent in the world.

Stop-Look-Wave

Sweden once again has Europe’s safest roads with just 22 deaths per million. Romania has the most dangerous roads and a fatality rate of 96 per million – so there is a four-fold difference between the best and worst countries. The best performers over the decade between 2010 and 2019 were Estonia (down 34% to 39 per million), Lithuania (down 38% to 66), Latvia (down 39% to 69), and Greece (down 45% to 65).

Safety Innovations avoiding emergency situations

But progress is slowing across Europe. The EU target of halving the number of road deaths between 2010 and the end of 2020 will not be met. The next target is a 50% reduction over 2021-2030, but at this rate, it will not be met either.

There are some interesting details in the data. For example, car occupants (drivers and passengers) account for 45% of all road deaths while users of two-wheelers make up 26% and pedestrians 21% of total fatalities. In urban areas, pedestrians (and not car occupants) account for the largest share of victims, some 40% of fatalities, while 12% are cyclists and 18% are users of powered two-wheelers. And while overall road fatalities fell 21% in the decade between 2010 and 2018, figures for car occupants improved comparatively faster, by 26%. By contrast, the number of cyclist fatalities fell by only 5% over the same period.

Carmakers say that much of the progress is due to their safety innovations. The industry group ACEA’s website, www.roadsafetyfacts.eu, explains the car sector’s latest vehicle safety technologies. The emphasis used to be on passive safety systems that reduce the impact of an accident during and after the crash – like pre-tensioned seatbelts, airbags and energy-absorbing crumple zones. Now it is on active safety measures that try to avoid emergency situations altogether – like autonomous emergency braking (AEB) systems that automatically intervene if the driver does not react, as well as technology to ensure that you don’t leave your lane unintendedly, like lane departure warning (LDW).

Some might try to compare the road safety figures to the Covid-19 statistics: in some countries, the virus claimed more lives in a few days than their entire annual deaths toll from roads.

But road deaths are not just about numbers on fatality charts. For every life lost, an estimated five more people suffer serious injuries with life-changing consequences. The external cost of road crashes has been estimated to be around €280 billion, or around 2% of EU GDP. Each death is a tragedy. The EU, government authorities and the industry need to keep working to get the numbers down further.