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The safety of the people shall be the highest law

David G Davies
David G Davies, Executive Director, PACTS
David G Davies, Executive Director, PACTS


Last year subways in London carried posters quoting the Roman politician, philosopher and lawyer Cicero: The safety of the people shall be the highest law. Were Cicero alive today, what would he make of the laws and practice relating to our traffic and that 25,000 people were reported killed or seriously injured on UK roads in 2014? Or of the terrible scale of death and injury in many newly-industrialising countries?

Despite big falls in casualties in the past three decades, road traffic injury remains a major public health issue for the UK. The ONS states that land transport accidents [mainly road] were the leading cause of death for 5-19 year olds in England and Wales in 2013. For adults too, road use remains one of the most hazardous parts of our daily lives. PACTS estimates that, on current trends, a third of a million people will be killed or seriously injured (KSI) on the roads in Great Britain over the two decades ending 2030, representing a loss to society valued at approximately £110 billion. There will still be some 1,000 road deaths per year in 2030 – unless government acts. 

The UK has a deserved reputation for good practice and expertise in many aspects of road safety. But it needs to keep reinvesting and reinventing. Safe System and a long-term Vision Zero for death and serious injury are now internationally-endorsed approaches to road safety management. Safe system recognises that road users are fallible and collisions will continue to happen. It places responsibility on providers of the transport system for the safety of the system and responsibility on users for complying with its rules and constraints. It comprises five pillars: safety management, safe roads, safe vehicles, safe users and post-crash care. Some would include justice and support for victims of collisions in the fifth pillar. Zero death and injury is not only a long-term vision but also an operational philosophy – to avoid the design of systems in which mistakes can result in death or life-changing injury. 

But what do these lofty ambitions and approaches mean in practice in the UK today? The Government has given Highways England, now responsible for the Strategic Road Network in England, a 40% KSI casualty reduction target by 2020. Former Chief Executive Graham Dalton said the road safety target was likely to be the most difficult target – even with £105milion for additional safety schemes. Highways England has gone further and chosen to adopt an ambition of zero harm by 2040. The adoption of safe system and Vision Zero by local authorities looks even more challenging given the spending cuts and need to align safety with economic, health and sustainability goals. Having endorsed Vision Zero for some time, PACTS is trying to help establish how it and safe system can be applied.

While Government and road safety professionals tend to focus on “KSIs”, road safety to the public is a much broader concept. It involves perceptions about personal freedom, quality of life, justice and other factors which affect their lives and the wider environment, economy, public health, travel patterns and much more. Whereas the House of Commons did not specifically debate road safety in the last Parliament, 100 MPs spoke in a remarkable four-hour Get Britain Cycling debate in the main Commons Chamber. Apart from the desire to promote cycling, this surely reflects the fact that casualties have reduced much less rapidly for cyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists than for car occupants. 

Sir Peter Bottomley MP, a PACTS Vice-Chair and former road safety minister, often points out that safety cannot be measure – only the casualty rate. Perhaps the research planned by Transport Focus, to underpin its new role as the road user champion, will provide useful insights into the road user’s concept of road safety. 

PACTS has reviewed recent progress in Road Safety Since 2010. It shows how casualty reduction has varied across the UK, with most progress in London, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but much less in the rest of England and Wales. There are new opportunities, challenges and threats ahead – autonomous vehicles, telematics, promotion of sustainable yet vulnerable modes and driver distractions to name but a few. PACTS supports evidence-based and cost-effective solutions, involving the public and private sectors. Despite the much-vaunted Government claim that “our roads are among the safest in the world”, there is a long way to go before road safety is “solved” either as a public health issue or a public concern.

About PACTS 

The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS) is an All-Party Parliamentary Group and a registered charity. Its charitable objective is “To protect human life through the promotion of transport safety for the public benefit”. Its aim is to advise and inform members of the House of Commons and of the House of Lords on air, rail and road safety issues. It brings together safety professionals and legislators to identify research-based solutions to transport safety problems having regard to cost, effectiveness, achievability and acceptability. In recent years it has paid increasing attention to the links between transport safety, sustainability and public health.

PACTS, Vision Zero and Safe System

PACTS believes in safe transport for all. PACTS’ vision is a safe transport system free from death and serious injury.

This should be achieved through:

  • investing in effective, targeted action in the transport system to protect against death and serious injury which is largely preventable;

  • implementing the best practice Safe System approach which takes account of human error and tolerance to injury; and

  • aligning with public health, occupational health and safety, environmental and social justice objectives to maximise the benefits of cost-effective investment.”

Our priorities for road safety are available here.

Safe System is the term used internationally for an approach which:

  • recognises that, despite preventive efforts, road users are fallible and collisions continue to happen on the roads;

  • places responsibility upon providers of the transport system for the safety of the system and responsibility upon users of the system for complying with its rules and constraints;

  • aligns safety management goals with wider sustainability goals including social, economic, environmental and health goals; and seeks out and shapes actions to reduce death and serious injury with the vision in mind.

The PACTS conference Aiming for Zero, March 2012, adopted a resolution calling on the UK government to develop a British version of Vision Zero.

Further details at: http://www.pacts.org.uk/about/

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