I also realised that I had the wrong idea about road traffic victims: before starting this job I had thought that road collisions happened because people did crazy things, but what I found was that most of the collisions were caused by relatively minor actions which had major consequences.
It was the ‘small’ things about the way that the majority of people use the roads which caused life changing injuries to themselves or others – that few mph above the speed limit, just checking to see what that text said, just riding up the side of a lorry turning left, just listening to earphones rather than looking at the traffic, looking the wrong way crossing the road in a foreign country, just adjusting the heating control, just getting distracted, impatient, angry, or anxious to get somewhere important. We all do some of these things more often than we would like to acknowledge. It was the banality or ordinariness of actions with terrible consequences which had a real impact on the way in which I felt about road safety.
I also saw that prevention was so much better than cure. I loved my job – flying around London in a helicopter and providing the best treatment to victims as early as possible. However, it was also very apparent that a third of the patients who died had very serious injuries and even with the best care that I could deliver there was just no system that could possibly save their lives. The only way to avoid life-ending or life-changing consequences was to prevent the injury happening in the first place.
Previously I had thought that road safety was about stopping people overtaking on blind bends at 100mph – when in fact I realised that it was so much more important to emphasise that road safety was about every road user, whether walking, cycling or motorised, being diligent and attentive as it is so easy to make an error. It really hit home to me that that using a road is one of the most dangerous things that we do and that we often approach it much too casually. This is what motivated me to become involved in a pedestrian road safety video that Brake were making, then acting as a medical adviser to Brake and finally acting as one of Brake’s trustees until 2019.
As an emergency physician I see the life changing impacts of the errors and bad decisions that people make while using the roads. I don’t understand why some people feel that being taught, told and enforced to use roads safely is an unwarranted infringement of their civil liberties. As an example, it is beyond my comprehension to call a safety camera “just a tax on the motorist”. So I want to be involved in advocating for road safety, using the insight that I have developed working in emergency and trauma care to better inform the public debate and, I hope, save lives and prevent life-changing injuries.
This blog is published for Road Safety Week 2021 in celebration of the road safety heroes who help us make safe and healthy journeys and support people after road crashes. Click here to find out more and sign up to take part.
Professor. Timothy J Coats
Professor of Emergency Medicine, University of Leicester