The Brake Blog

News and views from around the road safety world, with contributions from partners, researchers and campaigners as well as Brake staff and volunteers. All views expressed are those of the contributor and do not necessarily represent those of Brake or its employees.

So their deaths are not in vain

The government has today described a four per cent increase in road deaths in 2016 as 'natural variation'. This unfortunate and passive phrase wrongly suggests an acceptance of the stagnation in road deaths and underlines the urgent need for better collision data and investigation, says Mary Williams OBE, founder and chief executive of Brake.

The government has today described a four per cent increase in road deaths in 2016 as 'natural variation'. This is an unfortunate and passive phrase, suggestive of acceptance of the overall stagnation in levels of road deaths over the past five years. We are still killing on average five people every day.

The government’s annual report on road collisions and casualties, published today (28 September), shows deaths are at their highest since 2011. There has been no reduction of deaths of the most vulnerable – people on foot, bicycles and motorbikes. 

Deaths on roads are not natural deaths. They are violent, unacceptable, and preventable. Failure to reduce road deaths and serious injuries over the past five years is a shocking failure. 

The annual report also shows a nine percent rise in serious injuries. The government partly attributes this to changes in recording methodologies and urges against comparing current data to previous years. However, given the increase in deaths, it is entirely possible that serious injuries are also on the rise. 

The annual report contains critical information but falls well short of giving us all the answers to tackle deaths and injuries. Using a procedure considered in some respects dubious by academics, police forces are required to tick one or more of a selective list of predetermined possible causes for all crashes (and not all are reported). Many factors, particularly in-depth causation factors, are likely to be under-recorded, incorrectly recorded, or not recorded at all, simply because there isn’t a box to tick. Was it really ‘dazzling sun’ or a ‘pedestrian failing to look properly’ that caused an injury or, more likely, a combination of causations relating to the road, the vehicle, and the people involved - which is only possible to identify and define through careful, on the scene, investigation? 

We must have a strong evidence base to target actions to tackle road safety. This evidence base requires systematic and in-depth investigations, collated into accessible data sets that can be analysed, so we can learn and take action with the most appropriate countermeasures, and evaluate their effectiveness. 

Victims of road collisions seek not only justice but also assurance that lessons are learned so other families don't have to go through the devastation and sorrow that they have suffered. Many families affected look to coroners to hold inquests into their loved one’s death and make recommendations to prevent future deaths. However, if the circumstances of a death are thought to have been aired in a criminal court, an inquest rarely happens. In addition, coroners are not collision investigators and will not have comprehensive collision data available to them. Police forces in the UK are required to investigate fatal crashes for the purposes of identifying crimes, and to do so in line with an investigation manual. Their investigations often do not identify other causation information unrelated to a crime. For example, a child pedestrian may have died because the head of the child hit a hard and high SUV bumper - because there is no requirement for vehicle manufacturers to design bumpers to be low or more forgiving to children’s heads. Perhaps the SUV was not fitted with automatic emergency braking systems - because such systems are also not a legal requirement. Perhaps there wasn’t a safe crossing place between the child and their grandma’s house, and the speed limit was higher than 20mph. 

Regardless of these limitations in causation data, police reports do mount up into a lot of information of variable value academically. However, it is held by individual police forces in different cupboards, rather than collated and analysed as a data set for prevention purposes. At one stage, these files were actually stored in a giant warehouse in Berkshire funded by the Department for Transport, but they were never in entirety analysed and eventually were shipped back to the police forces whence they came. 

The good news is that government agencies, including the Department for Transport and Highways England, working with road safety academics, have long recognised the importance of detailed investigation of crashes, collation and analysis of data sets from multiple crashes and identification of recommendations to prevent future crashes. Over the past 20 years, academic studies, carried out by the likes of transport research agency TRL and various universities, primarily funded by government, have conducted detailed and high level roadside investigations of collisions led by teams of experts including road and vehicle engineers, working alongside police officers but for purely academic reasons – to investigate causes and prevent future crashes.  The RAIDS project run by TRL is a worthy current project of this type. These types of studies tend to have restricted parameters, for example fatalities on particular types of roads. They tend to result in many conclusions relating to the potential for road and vehicle design improvement. 

Academics, NGOs and the police are now uniting in their calls for the government to establish a road collision investigation branch, similar to those already in operation to investigate and prevent aviation, rail and maritime disasters. These branches independently evaluate evidence to identify how to stop future deaths and injuries. This is a tried and tested methodology; there have been no deaths of passengers on railways for nine years. We hope Jesse Norman, the new roads Minister, will listen. The government places a value on the prevention of the loss of life on the road at £1.8 million for every death. For that amount of money, a road collision investigation branch could be established and would be likely to save far more than one life. 

Returning to the example of a child being hit by a SUV, in a recent conversation with an academic, I explored why there was no laboratory crash test required for SUVs that tested a dummy child “head form” against the top of the front bumper area. The circular - and wholly inadequate - answer is that there is no evidence collated to suggest children’s heads hit SUV bumpers, so no test has been devised. As vehicles continue to develop at an increasing pace and move towards full automation, collision investigation will become an increasing imperative. 

Brake hopes that today’s statistics act as a wake-up call to government for the urgent establishment of the proposed road collision investigation branch, and urgent actions in line with the information that this data reveals. Without absolute evidence to tackle causes, the bodies will continue to pile up. 

Mary Williams OBE, Chief executive, Brake, the road safety charity

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Monday, 11 December 2017

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