In the UK, collectively, the road death toll was nearly 3,500 people every year. It was accepted, in a, “Well yes it’s bad, but what can you do about it” kind of way. There was no clamour for change. Newspapers weren’t running headlines about the death toll mounting up, as they do with knife crime.
Meanwhile, a train crash would be front-page news for a week. Take the train that derailed at Hatfield on 17 October 2000, a tragedy in which four people died. That led to huge media interest, massive upheaval on the railways, and, ultimately, the re-nationalisation of Railtrack, whose failings had caused the crash. Yet more than twice as many people will have died on the roads that day. Nothing was written about that death toll. Nothing changed.
In 2000, four people died in train crashes, while 3,409 died on the roads.
Here are those figures again for people killed on our roads:
- 1997 – 3,599
- 1998 – 3,422
- 1999 – 3,423
- 2000 – 3,409
- 2001 – 3,450
- 2002 – 3,431
- 2003 – 3508
But, in 2004 the figure dropped below 3,400 for the first time, to 3,221. Then in 2005 to 3,201.
- 2006 – 3,172
- 2007 – 2,946
Below 3,000. This was a change. Significant change: 500 lives a year were not being lost. If you use Britain’s roads, your life may have been one of them.
- 2008 – 2,538
- 2009 – 2,222
When the 2010 figures came out I was amazed by the headline figure: 1,857.
That’s still far too high, of course, but it was 1,701 lower than seven years earlier.
This was a major story that deserved a lot of coverage, which it failed to get. Having shown no concern for when we were killing 3,500 people, it wasn’t overly surprising that the fact we were now killing 1,700 fewer wasn’t celebrated.
At any rate, the numbers had flat-lined for years, then, in half a dozen years, it halved. Why?
The drop in road deaths
The lack of media coverage resulted in an absence of answers. One commentator, Christian Woolmar, observed that there was no clear answer to why this had happened. But he went on to point out that there had been a fall in the average road speed over this period.
My anticipation of the 2011 figures troubled me because I expected them to go up. Obviously, I didn’t want them to: I desperately want zero deaths on our roads. But something happened in 2010 that I was sure would lead to more fatalities and bring a halt to the falling trend.
I was right. In 2011 we killed 1,901.
[Read more: More than 4,400 cyclists were killed or seriously injured on British roads last year]
The news was better in 2012. The fatality rate was 1,754. So was the 2011 figure just a blip, due to some significant snowfalls that year? No: the trend was over.
The number of people killed on our roads remained stuck in the 17 hundreds until the pandemic but sadly bounced back.
- 2013 – 1,713
- 2014 – 1,775
- 2015 – 1,732
- 2016 – 1,792
- 2017 – 1,793
- 2018 – 1,782
- 2019 – 1,752
- 2020 – 1,608
- 2021 – 1,558
- 2022 – 1,760
We have returned to a flatline on the graph – and if anything, I’m more fascinated now than I was before. The road death toll flatlined at 3,500 for years, then fell sharply, then flatlined again at half the rate.
This can’t have happened by accident. I wished I could explain it. I wish we could repeat it. No: I wish the second flatline hadn’t happened, and the fall had continued. If the rate of fall had continued, we’d have reached zero deaths on the road by now. You’d be right to question whether this is possible – but if you can half the number in a few years, why can’t we eradicate them altogether? The railways are an example of what is possible. (The last time a passenger died in a train crash on Britain’s railways was in the Stonehaven derailment on 12 August 2020.)
Why did the death toll fall?
The obvious reason for a reduction in the road death toll is the improvement in car safety features. This could create a gradual fall in the death toll as new, safer cars replaced older ones. But I’m not sure it can explain a 40% fall over a four-year period.
There’s a way to check whether cars on the road became almost twice as safe between 2003 and 2010: you can compare the figures with the EU. Car safety features are international, and any new feature would have appeared around the same time across the continent.
The good news is that things are improving across Europe – but no country had quite the same trajectory as Britain. They all have a fall much closer to a straight line of the sort you’d expect a general improvement in car safety would produce.
One thing I did notice is that, from 2013, these five countries stop falling. The technology-based solutions of recent years, such as automatic emergency braking, don’t appear to be saving lives as of yet.
So, yes, cars are safer – but that doesn’t seem to explain why British roads suddenly became 40% safer between 2006 and 2010.
A new policy for road death reduction
In 1999, the New Labour government announced that it was going to reduce deaths on our roads. The target was a 50% reduction by 2010. As you now know, it succeeded. This was a major achievement for the government. The kind of thing you would bang on about all the time. “Deaths on our roads halved by Labour!” But the party wasn’t in government when the 2010 figures were released – and it’s hard to take credit for your achievements from the opposition benches.
That it was government policy is not a full explanation, and how this happened is a little opaque. From what I can gather there was a wide-ranging approach. The fire and rescue service changed their practices: because they recognised that survival rates were directly dependent on how quickly people got to the hospital, this became the priority.
Disturbing a police crime scene was allowed if it saved a life. Accident black spots were located, highlighted and safety measures implemented. Throughout that period road safety campaigns focused on speed, with “Speed Kills” being the dominant message for that decade. The government also changed the laws on speed cameras.
RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has a lot to say about speeding and speed cameras. Its “Speed Camera Factsheet” states that, “Cameras are a very effective way of persuading drivers not to speed, and thereby reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured.” It reports that an independent review published by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2005 said that “cameras significantly reduce speeding and collisions, and cut deaths and serious injuries at camera sites”, adding that cameras sites were delivering 100 fewer deaths per year.
Cameras first appeared in 1991, and revenue from court fines and fixed penalties went to the Exchequer. However, in 2000 a trial scheme saw local councils keep the fines to pay for the cost of speed and red-light cameras. The pilot was so successful that, in 2001, legislation enabled this to happen across the country. The cost of providing and operating cameras moved from the local authority to the law-breaking motorist.
The golden age of the speed camera had begun.
There was a tweak to this legislation in 2007. Fines reverted back to the Exchequer’s piggy bank. The DfT switched to funding cameras through a road safety grant. The intention was to create a greater mix of road safety measures agreed between local authorities and the police.
The number of people killed on British roads in 2007: 2,946
The number of people killed on British roads in 2010: 1,857
So perhaps the creation of the Road Safety Grant had a significant impact.
Why did the death toll stop falling?
In 2010 I was unaware of Labour’s target to halve deaths on the roads. But, the change in government was enough for me to predict that the fall was over.
When the Tory/Lib Dem government negotiated its way into power in May 2010, the press declared that it was the end of the horrible nanny state – a return to personal freedom, liberty and the rule of common sense.
The way that this was to play out in real practical terms was on our roads. The evil speed camera was in the firing line. The narrative was that these cameras were just there so councils could extract cash from the poor public. Completely ignored were the facts that the fines were only handed down to dangerous, law-breaking drivers and that councils no longer got the cash from fines.
Soon after the election, the coalition government said that “Labour’s 13-year war on the motorist is over” and pledged to scrap public funding for speed cameras. The Road Safety Grant to local authorities was cut from £95m to £57m. This meant that the government was now receiving an estimated £40m more raised in fines than it was spending on road safety. The cut to the grant reduced the camera maintenance budget by 27%t. It removed all the funding for new cameras, speed humps and other safety measures.
And the golden age ended.
Councils across the country announced their change of policy. Oxfordshire County Council switched off its speed cameras on 1 August 2010. Money was saved; lives were lost.
Eight months later, on 1 April, Oxfordshire’s cameras snapped back into life when the council reversed its decision because deaths on the county’s roads had immediately increased.
Turning off speed cameras sent out the message that we were no longer taking speeding seriously. The road safety campaigns changed their focus. The message that Speed Kills fell away and was replaced by drink and drug-driving messages.
It’s easy to miss that these campaigns move from encompassing virtually every driver to targeting a minority. A switch from confronting a socially acceptable behaviour to re-enforcing something already unacceptable. The state is no longer challenging everyone to be safe – only the small minority of bad people.
Yet speed still kills. The World Health Organisation states that an increase in the average speed of 1 km/h typically results in a 3% higher risk of a crash involving injury, with a 4–5% increase for crashes that result in fatalities.
The majority of safety measures installed before 2010 remain in place and are saving lives. But with the funding gone, councils are no longer installing new measures and the death toll is no longer falling.
So you can make a strong case that the pattern of road deaths was the result of government policy.
Which begs the question of our government: why has it accepted that it’s OK to kill, or be killed, on our roads?
[Read more: The most dangerous roads in the UK for cyclists and pedestrians revealed]