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The devastation of road casualties and working together to prevent them

Julie Townsend
Julie Townsend, Senior Campaigns and Strategy Adviser, Brake
Julie Townsend, Senior Campaigns and Strategy Adviser, Brake


Imagine an unexpected knock at the door from a police officer, come to tell you that the person you love most in the world won’t be coming home today, or ever again, because they have been suddenly, violently and needlessly killed in a road crash. By the end of today, five more families across the UK will have gone through this horrifying experience. Scores more will be facing up to a serious injury in a road crash.

Brake is a road safety charity, best known for our work campaigning for safer streets, but a major and vitally important part of our work is supporting people who are bereaved and injured on roads. Our support packs are provided to bereaved families following every UK road death, and are often described as a lifeline for those experiencing their worst nightmare come true. Our helpline supports more than 500 families a year devastated by road death and serious injury, providing comfort, help accessing counseling and other services, and guidance through bewildering practical and emotional upheaval. 

Through our support work, we are all too aware of the shockwaves of grief and suffering that every road death and serious injury creates. This underpins our campaigning and educational work, and the crucial input of our many bereaved and injured volunteers gives weight to our calls for action. 

Brake has long advocated a ‘vision zero’ approach by government, authorities, employers and all involved in making roads safer. We know road deaths and injuries are utterly devastating, and we know they are preventable. Therefore we should not accept them in any number. Unfortunately, we have some way to go before this is fully accepted by the public and policy-makers. The idea of a vision zero is often scoffed at as being unrealistic. Hence the need for those in the sector to work hard, together, to get the message across that road death and serious injury should never be treated as an inevitable by-product of mobility. It used to be common for people to die on building sites and railways, but this is, rightly, no longer deemed acceptable. The same view should be adopted on our roads. 

One way those working in road safety can help to push this agenda is through language. Although most road safety professionals now refrain from using the term ‘accidents’, we need to be clearer and more vocal about the importance of this. It is a term that reinforces the sense that crashes are chance mishaps, not predictable events we can stop. It is also offensive to many victims. 

We must also work to promote the links between road safety and social and political issues often given greater attention: public health and wellbeing, social justice and community cohesion, and the environment. We can work to reposition and redefine road safety as a health, community and environmental issue, and resist attempts to pigeonhole it as being about ‘transport’ alone. Road safety is not just about persuading people to drive, walk and cycle safely, nor is it just about casualty prevention, crucial though this is, it is also about enabling people to get around freely, without fear or threat, and to live active, happy lives. 

Brake’s vision is a world where there are zero road deaths and injuries and people can get around in ways that are safe, sustainable, healthy and enjoyable. This encompasses not only ‘vision zero’ principles, but also a belief that ultimately travel should be zero harm: it should not contribute to poor health or wellbeing, fear, injury or loss of life in any way, including related to sedentary lifestyles, air pollution or climate change. We believe that having this ambition and showing determined leadership can help all of us working in road safety to achieve our goals and maximise the positive impact we have on society: it helps to underline the far-reaching importance of road safety and build passion for it as a humanitarian cause. 

Brake’s events, training and resources aim to help road safety professionals, employers, educators and communities take action on and promote road safety to maximum effect, in line with vision zero and zero harm principles. Our Giant Walk for primary schools every June highlights the importance of children being able to walk in safety; it provides an opportunity to not only engage children in road safety, but also to give them a voice and communicate the need for them to be both protected and liberated through safer driving and safer streets. Our training programme on engaging young people uses key principles of behavioural change to help professionals run interactive workshops, discussing not only the terrible impact of crashes and the power of young people to help prevent them as drivers and passengers, but also the wider implications on them and society of their transport choices. 

This year our long-running flagship event, Road Safety Week, 23-29 November, throws the spotlight on the relationship between road safety, mobility, health, community and the environment through our ‘drive less live more’ theme. We’re encouraging road safety professionals to register to be part of it at roadsafetyweek.org.uk, and seize the chance to speak out together for zero casualties and ultimately zero harm on our roads. 

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