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13 February 2019updated 07 Sep 2021 12:26pm

How experts made driving in Britain safer

In the UK, 1,400 fewer people now die on the road each year compared to a decade ago.

By Tim Wigmore

It is called Britain’s most dangerous road. The A537 in the Peak District – known locally as “the Cat and Fiddle” – is notorious for its bends, steep climbs and falls, as well as the “racetrack mentality” of those who drive on it. There were 44 serious or fatal crashes on this 12-kilometre stretch of road between 2007 and 2011.

In 2010, average-speed cameras were installed. Before, when the Cat and Fiddle only had fixed-speed cameras, motorists used to speed for long periods and then slow down when they knew that they were being watched. Now they can no longer do so.

Other steps to increase safety had already been taken, including the building of sturdier barriers to prevent motorcycles from falling off the edge of the road. The speed limit was lowered to 50 miles per hour and, because of the new average-speed cameras, motorists had to adhere to it.

Last year, the Cat and Fiddle was named as one of the ten most improved roads in Britain. Since 2010, only one person has been killed there, compared with five in the previous six years. Between 2008-10 and 2011-13, the number of fatal and serious collisions fell by 77 per cent.

The story of the Cat and Fiddle is emblematic of one of the great forgotten successes of the past decade in Britain: how much safer our roads have become. Between 2006 and 2015, the number of road fatalities – not just drivers, but also pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists killed in crashes – fell by 45 per cent. The UK is now among the safest countries in Europe to drive in. You are half as likely to die on the road here as in the rest of the EU.

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This is, in part, down to improved road design. Highway engineers have used data to address perilous areas, through measures such as introducing crossings in places where pedestrians were at risk, building roundabouts at busy crossroads and lowering speed limits. The number of casualties is now distributed more evenly across the network, which shows that the most dangerous spots have become much safer.

The authorities have become smarter in other ways, too. Average-speed cameras were launched in 1999. The miles covered by average-speed cameras has doubled since 2013 as they have become cheaper. The cost of installing an “average-speed check zone” is now around £100,000 per mile, compared with £1.5m per mile 15 years ago.

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The police have used cameras to clamp down on speeding but they have also innovated in other ways. For instance, roadside drugs swabs were introduced in 2015. Meanwhile, emergency services have become swifter at responding to accidents, with the advent of air ambulances and first responders. The prospects for casualties are better, too, because of advances in the NHS.

Vehicles are also safer. They are better able to withstand crashes and to prevent them happening. Automatic emergency braking, which is now common, slows cars down if a collision is imminent.

On top of all this, drivers are better informed. According to Iain Temperton of Road Safety GB, as a result of tweaks to the driving test to make it more rigorous, “We are turning out better-trained new drivers all the time.” He believes that early interventions in school, such as pedestrian and cyclist training, are particularly effective in reducing road fatalities.

When young people become eligible to drive at 17, driving holds less appeal than it did before. Since 2007, the percentage of those aged between 17 and 20 with a full driving licence has fallen from 38 per cent to 29 per cent, and those in their twenties and thirties are less likely to drive. Much of the decrease can be put down to how the economic downturn has made owning a car seem unaffordable. Despite this, the overall level of car and taxi traffic has risen by 2.7 per cent above the 2010-14 average. The rise of low-cost taxi services, such as Uber, provides a cheaper alternative.

Improving on this record will be tricky. As in other fields, there is a law of diminishing returns: the greater the gains, the harder they are to keep making. Over the past 15 years, road fatalities have fallen by a slightly larger percentage in the rest of Europe than in Britain, albeit from a much higher base.

“We need to do more to get back on a long-term downward trend,” says Kevin Clinton, the head of road safety at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. He stresses the need to be more proactive in introducing safer vehicles as soon as technology improves.

Far too many people are still killed on Britain’s roads. However, in an age when the notion of expertise is under attack, it’s a triumph for the experts that 1,400 fewer people now die on the road each year compared to a decade ago.