The feeling of false safety in ever-safer cars kills people

A more effective way to save more lives on the road is to enforce reasonable speed limits more effectively, rather than adding more safety features to vehicles.

Traffic accidents have long been one of the top ten causes of death in the world. About 1.35 million people are killed on the road every year. According to the World Health Organization, in the age group of 5 to 29 years, traffic accident injuries are the single most common cause of death.

In addition to the psychological harm and suffering of victims’ families, fatal accidents also cause considerable economic damage. In EU and OECD countries, they are estimated to amount to around 2% of GDP.

It is alarming that in developed Western countries, despite several initiatives, accident rates have been reduced only marginally or not at all in the past decade, and that is despite the fact that drivers used safer cars and better road infrastructure than ever before.

Risk factors

Countless research and studies have identified several risk factors that affect accident rates and road deaths. Some of them do not seemingly tell us anything ground-breaking. For example, it sounds intuitive that most fatal accidents occur after dark.

Other findings may be surprising or even controversial. For example, on roads around the globe, men at the wheel kill and get killed more often than women. The risk of death on the road also increases after divorce or breaking up with a partner.

On the other hand, the risk of fatal accidents is reduced (with the exception of teenagers) if the driver is accompanied by a passenger, especially if the driver is a man and the passenger is a woman, says Tom Vanderbilt in his book Traffic.

The level of risk is affected not only by the age and sex of the driver, but also the place and time of their driving. There are many more fatal accidents on Sunday between 1 and 3 AM than before the noon of the same day. If we consider other factors on top of that, such as the weather, technical condition of the vehicle or the driver’s fatigue, we get a whole range of different factors with no readily visible correlations, let alone causations.

Futile effort?

A chapter on its own are car safety systems. Many drivers believe that road safety has been enhanced by the safety features fitted by car manufacturers to their cars in the past decades, ranging from fairly trivial, such as a third stop light, to more sophisticated technologies, such as ABS.

T. Vanderbilt argues that these assumptions are, to a large extent, wrong. Referring to several studies, he claims that drivers believing that their car is safer tend to engage in riskier behaviour.

In other words, the greater the risk we feel, for example in bad weather, the more cautious we are at the wheel. Conversely, a higher sense of safety, such as in a large SUV packed with safety features, encourages riskier, usually faster than reasonable, driving.

This is one of the reasons why the number of road fatalities per travelled distance are decreasing at about the same rate as in the first half of the 20th century, when cars had no seat belts or airbags.

More speed measurement = fewer deaths

So, how can we save more lives on the road in the future? In theory, achieving near-zero mortality is simple. It would suffice to significantly reduce and respect the speed limit, for example to 35 km/hr.

In a fast-paced modern society, such restrictions would not be acceptable. However, any reduction in average speed reduces the risk of road accidents and fatalities, but without enforcing the defined limits, the desired effect would not be achieved.

In the 1990s, road traffic mortality in the UK decreased by 34%, while in the US it was only by 6.5%. It was not because cars in Europe were safer. While the Brits were deploying cameras and speed guns, the Americans were ignoring them and increasing their speed limits. Had they managed to do what the Brits did, they would have saved 10,000 lives, as T. Vanderbilt points out.

Radars have a positive effect on respecting speed limits and thus reducing the road accident rates, especially on road sections where radars are installed permanently and drivers are aware of them. If we want to benefit more from this effect on driving behaviour, we should consider more widespread checks, including the more general use of mobile radars in police vehicles.

The gradual introduction of smart technologies for motorized patrols, such as Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) and video recording and streaming cameras, which are part of the MOSY Intelligent Police Vehicle solution, makes the more widespread deployment of mobile radars easier. Upgrading such a car to fit it with speed measurement radar is relatively simple and cost-effective.

Visit our website for more on solutions that help police conduct their service, including speed checks, more effectively.