Road deaths are down 70% – but is there a plan to keep them low?

In a normal year, around 150 people a month die from road traffic collisions. But under lockdown deaths have plummeted.

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Deaths and serious injuries on the UK’s roads have plummeted by 70 per cent since lockdown, the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced on Wednesday while being questioned by members of the transport select committee. In a normal year, 1,800 people would die from road traffic collisions, around 150 a month. 

Shapps added that deaths and serious injuries had remained low even as car traffic has increased to around 70 per cent of the pre-lockdown level, although it was still “early days”. Road traffic deaths were as high as 7,985 in 1966. They have declined since then overall, but the number has remained steady since 2010. 

When asked how he intended to build on the post-Covid-19 reduction by Lilian Greenwood, Labour MP for Nottingham South, Shapps responded that his department was looking at the applications for tech, such as automatic stopping technology, lane adherence, and driverless cars. He added the insurance industry was working to encourage safer driving by installing technology in vehicles to monitor safe driving and in turn calculate insurance premiums. Shapps also mentioned the long-standing “Think” road safety campaign.

“I think all of these things should help us start to suppress the serious injuries and deaths on our roads,” Shapps said.

Caroline Russell, a London Assembly member for the Green Party, expressed concern about the lack of clear steps for reducing road deaths post-pandemic. Russell said she had written to the Transport Secretary earlier in lockdown to ask for a cut in the national default speed limits to 50mph on main roads and 20mph in built-up areas as a way to significantly cut deaths and serious injuries. While some tech solutions are useful, she told me, efforts to improve lorry safety by adding more warning noises were less effective than design changes that improve the natural vision of lorry drivers.

According to Russell, the best solution is the “low cab lorry” that puts the driver in a place where they can see people walking and cycling alongside. The interim fix is technological, with video views of what is around the lorry but, she explains, that installs another screen that the driver has to look at, and sensors that often beep for static objects rather than for people. “Drivers complain about having so many mirrors and video links and warning beeps, that they are tempted to switch off the sound alerts,” she said.

The mayor of London is committed to “Vision Zero”, bringing the number of serious road injuries and deaths to zero.

The select committee hearing was part of an investigation into transport and the coronavirus. Among the other topics discussed, MPs heard that the change to a “one metre plus” social distancing rule would mean bus capacity could increase from 15 to 20 percent of normal capacity to 25 to 30 percent. Shapps also warned that the government’s scheme to provide £25m in vouchers for bicycle repairs will take longer than expected to bring an estimated half-a-million bikes back into use, due to a shortage of repairers to meet current demand.

Samir Jeraj is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman

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