Children are, unsurprisingly, especially vulnerable on the roads. Road traffic injury, according to the 2008 European Report on Child Injury Prevention is the leading killer of children aged 5–19 years in the World Health Organization European Region, and the leading cause of traumatic brain and limb injury in this group.
There are many mechanisms at play. Children are smaller and as a result more difficult for drivers to detect. Their visual perception is underdeveloped meaning they find it more difficult to properly judge traffic speed. They have a less-developed understanding of road rules and conventions, making them more likely to make the mistakes that the Safe System expects. All of this makes safer speeds, and collision avoidance technologies in vehicles, even more important for this group.
Parents are central to many of the attempts we might make to protect children from risk, and they also serve as mentors and first points of information about road safety (from road crossing to driving). They can have a negative or a positive influence on their children.
Children learn high risk driving behaviours from their parents, but equally we know from research TRL undertook in 2016 and elsewhere that if we include parents in interventions designed to reduce risk in young drivers, these interventions seem to work better; several of the interventions being evaluated in the Driver2020 project, an ongoing TRL-led trial, include parental influence as a mechanism by which to try and achieve improved effectiveness. Safer road use starts with parents, even if later other influences take over.
Which brings us to young people, and especially young drivers. This is one of the most well-researched groups in road safety. We have known for close to a century that they are at increased risk of crashing relative to their older, more experienced peers. The role of experience (in addition to that of youth) was recognised throughout the 1990s as TRL led research into crash liability and the implementation of the hazard perception testing, which since 2002 has, we believe, been saving thousands of novice drivers from being involved in collisions every year. This is a group for which we have a known, effective intervention in the form of licensing reform. TRL research shows that this approach is effective, and that it can be implemented without undue impacts on mobility, and yet successive governments have failed to follow this evidence base. As part of the all-encompassing road safety management 'pillar' of the Safe System, we need to do better with our licensing system.
We are all educators, and we can all improve our contribution to keeping the roads safe for all. For those who work directly in road safety education for children, young drivers, and parents, there is a need for better evidence-based approaches to deliver.
Families are hugely important active players in road safety. In our hypothetical film, the family would provide the context for the multiple coming-of-age moments that mobility provides. Whether it is starting to crawl, taking first steps, discovering stairs and climbing them, or ripping up L-plates after passing a driving test, families look on, beaming. It isn't just about those moments though – there is great practical work going on in the background. For example, when people talk about potential difficulties in policing graduated licensing for young drivers, they forget that in countries with such systems, it is families and parents that do the heavy lifting in terms of helping those affected to stick to the rules. Of course, a family is also often the context in which bereavement plays out in the aftermath of a road traffic collision. The fact that road traffic injury is especially prone to kill young and otherwise healthy people often lends extra grief to this always terrible outcome.
Which brings us to educators, or as I prefer to say, everyone. We all play a part in making this better. We are all educators, and we can all improve our contribution to keeping the roads safe for all. For those who work directly in road safety education for children, young drivers, and parents, there is a need for better evidence-based approaches to deliver. Great progress has been made on this over the last two decades, but we need to keep this going. For those working in more general health and safety, there is a need to enact better Safe-System-based policies on driving at work. For those influencing policy, there is a need for bravery to speak up for a true Safe System approach in which safety really is the focus, not just said to be so. And all of us need to strive for improvement, not just in avoiding excessively risky behaviours, but also in reducing our own minor transgressions.
If road safety were a film, children, parents, young people, families and educators would all play a central role. 'Safe Roads for All' would rewrite the script though; out with the tragedy, and in with the life-affirming coming-of-age story. Our child would grow up protected from their inevitable errors and physical vulnerability by safe traffic speeds and technologies. They would learn positive behaviour from their parents and educators using effective interventions. When they began driving, they would be protected by a progressive system of licensing that managed the risks they faced at each stage of their journey as new motorists. When they joined a company, Safe System thinking would still be there, making sure that they were not pressured into risking their life, and those of others, for the sake of productivity. And in the final shot, the family would be smiling.
The concept of ‘Safe Roads for All’ requires all of us to play our role in teaching others the importance of Safe System thinking.
About the Author
Shaun Helman is TRL’s Chief Scientist for Behavioural Sciences. He is an applied cognitive and social psychologist with nearly two decades’ experience in road safety, road user behaviour, and human-technology integration. His research focuses on the safety of young and newly qualified drivers, vulnerable road user safety (especially visibility and conspicuity) and work-related road safety. More generally, his research and commentary focus on raising the standards of evaluation and evidence in the transport domain, including research into automated driving technologies, low-emission vehicles, and the emergence of new models of the movement of people and goods such as shared mobility. He has a track record of delivering projects which impact directly on government policy and advice to road users, including many of the changes in the last decade to driver testing and licensing in Great Britain. He has written over 120 journal articles and customer reports since 2002 and has presented at numerous national and international conferences on road safety and other transport issues. He represents TRL at the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, acts as a reviewer for several scientific journals and grant bodies, and is a Trustee of the Road Safety Trust.
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