Figures published by the International Transport Forum towards the end of July (http://www.internationaltransportforum.org/Press/PDFs/2009-07-22IRTAD.pdf) drew two conclusions from the OECD countries. First road deaths in 2008 showed a large reduction compared to 2007, as already shown in Great Britain’s figures published in June. Secondly, the economic recession could have played a part in this fall.
It is interesting to consider the extent that the recession may affect transport. Recently, there have been signs of reductions in vehicular traffic. In 2008, this fell by 0.8%. In the first quarter of 2009, provisional figures suggest that car traffic was down by 3% compared to the same period in 2008. However, the snowfall in February accounted for 1% of the reduction so there does not seem to be a huge recession impact to date. And even if there is, the fall in casualties is far greater so we cannot conclude that lives saved are due to the impact of the recession.
The DfT figures also show interesting variations between road types. Motorway traffic decreased by 5% in the first quarter, rural traffic by 4% and urban by 2%. If the recession results in less traffic on what are already the safest roads, then I would suggest that we will see little impact on casualties overall.
If these are the short-term impacts of the economic climate, it may also be interesting to think about the potential longer-term changes. Here you also have to think about the government focus on low carbon transport.
We have already seen falls in the numbers of people flying as reflected in Ryanair’s reduction of flights from Stansted airport. As others have commented, the age of the low-cost weekend flight may now be over. Its demise, however, probably has little relevance for safety overall.
What may be more interesting is the decision by the government to encourage long-term electrification of the rail network. Again, the direct safety benefits are minimal since rail already has a good safety record. The question is whether electrification and even the development of a dedicated high speed rail network will encourage those currently using their cars to leave them at home and “let the train take the strain”. In the long-term, Great Britain plc might benefit in safety terms across the transport system.
Finally, it is worth thinking about the impact of the recession on the vehicle fleet. The removal of 10 year old cars from the vehicle fleet through the scrappage scheme may well reduce the number of these vehicles driven by younger drivers – thereby improving their safety. The focus on encouraging low carbon vehicles may also lead to a changed mix within the car parc although all of these will clearly be manufactured to existing safety standards. The only unknown in this area lies in the need for the emergency services to have up to date knowledge of the materials used and the nature of the fuel source when they are visiting the scene of an incident.
All of this suggests that, even if the welcome fall in casualties leads us to ask whether we are now as safe as we can be, the known unknowns of the current economic climate will still lead us to conclude that we have plenty of work to do.