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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research themes > Mobility > The route to road safety
Graphic element The route to road safety

Deaths and injuries on the road reduced drastically over the last decade in Europe thanks in part to Europe-wide research into road transport policy. However, there is little room for complacency. The sharp decreases in fatal accidents posted in the early 1990s have levelled off in recent years. Some countries, such as Ireland, have even registered increases in road deaths recently with the same trend evident in most of the candidate countries lined up to join the EU.

Economic growth, which translates into higher car use and more congestion, is likely to increase the death toll on Europe's roads. Currently, there are around 40,000 deaths and around 1.5 million reported casualties a year on Europe's roads. Under-reporting means that the casualty rate is probably much higher. In blunt economic terms, a guideline figure of around Euro 1 million has been selected as the cost of every death. The total bill for accidents is likely to be around twice the annual budget for the EU every year.

Adopting best practice

Stark differences in the levels of road safety exist across Europe - the number of accidents per million people is twice as high in France, Spain, Italy and Germany as in the EU's safest countries, Sweden and the United Kingdom. This comparison shows the margin for improvement that can be achieved by countries learning from each other and adopting the best practice available.

Research into new ways to improve safety levels was given high priority under the EU's Fourth Framework Research Programme (FP4) and continues under FP5. It is also a key issue in the EU's Common Transport Policy.

Research efforts into road safety so far have been broad based. Around a dozen different projects were launched under FP4 covering topics such as:

  • improving understanding of the causes and effects of accidents through harmonised reporting;
  • how best to warn drivers at roadworks;
  • how to boost the safety of pedestrians and cyclists; and
  • measuring the effects of drugs and medicines on drivers.

Some of the research projects were grouped together to produce better results.
The European Commission issued a communication on road transport safety in March 2000. This makes a number of suggestions drawing on past and ongoing research. It calls for:

  • work on car crash tests to continue;
  • the launch of campaigns on seat belts and child restraints;
  • recommendations by governments on maximum blood alcohol levels;
  • speed limiters for light commercial vehicles;
  • guidelines to be drawn up for improving black spots, for example by designing roadsides with less street furniture that can cause fatalities;
  • legislation on safer car fronts; and
  • research into the cost benefit of medical standards for driving tests, tougher driving tests, the use of daytime lights on vehicles, the effects of medicines on driver behaviour, and post accident care.
Wide range of projects

Major EU-funded research projects include improving bus and coach safety, better frontal impact protection and how to tackle the problems of speeding:

  Research into bus and coach safety

Unlike the trend for cars, deaths and injuries involving buses and coaches have been stubbornly stable over recent years. Every year around 20,000 buses and coaches weighing over 5,000 kg are involved in accidents with around 35,000 people injured and 250 killed.

The FP5 ECBOS project involves seven institutions in six countries. It aims to develop cost-effective tests for evaluating when drivers and occupants are involved in accidents and what types of injuries occur.
What contribution passenger safety belts can make to improving the situation will be covered, especially whether these could be standardised on buses for children. Safety on city buses will also be the subject of special focus since these are often crowded, with many passengers standing. Injuries can be caused by sudden braking or fairly minor collisions.

Research results will be used to decide whether current EU regulations governing such aspects as bus stability and the stability and anchorage of seats should be altered. The seven partners involved are: Gesamtverband der Deutschen Versicherungswirtschaft (GDV); the Technical University, Graz; Universidad de Madrid; Loughborough University; Politechnico di Torino; the Netherlands Association for Applied Research; and Cranfield Impact Centre.

  Improved frontal impact protection

Surprisingly, after years of research by producers and governments into ways of making cars safer for their occupants during crashes, a crash dummy which properly reflects the injuries and body behaviour during frontal collisions has not been developed. The most widely used dummy was developed in the USA in the 1970s but has a number of important limitations in particular with respect to injury evaluation of the head, face and lower leg.

The FP5 FID project seeks to fill this important gap. Building on current knowledge and dummy know-how, the project aims to develop a new worldwide test dummy for frontal collisions, the most widespread type of accident which most often results in deaths. The dummy will be used to monitor the types and seriousness of injuries incurred during frontal impacts.

Four research institutes and two universities are sharing the burden of work on this three-year programme at the end of which a prototype dummy should be ready. It is hoped that knowledge from the research and prototype could be translated into new European safety standards for cars by 2005 or 2006.

Close co-operation with the USA on this research should result in harmonised trans-Atlantic safety standards for cars that could also provide the basis for worldwide rules. This would avoid EU and US manufacturers facing the nightmare of having to comply with different sets of regulations, which represent a significant cost burden on their operations and a major barrier to exports.

FID will build on research already carried out under the FP4 ADRIA project.

  Problems of speeding

Speed has a fatal attraction for many modern motorists, causing needless deaths and injuries. A rough rule of thumb says that for every 1 km/h of excess speed, accidents and injuries will rise by between 2 to 3%. The two-year FP4 MASTER research programme tried to establish acceptable speed limits in given environments, what determined drivers' choice of speed, and the best tools available for forcing motorists to obey limits.

Current European speed limits are broadly similar for built up areas but diverge sharply on rural and secondary roads, where limits can range from 70 to 113 km/h. On motorways, most countries have similar limits but Germany stands out with no limits at all. Research found that almost 80% of drivers flout speed limits.

The research work provided no easy answers on how to limit speeds. Automated speed controls and automatic speed cameras are effective means to police limits in rural and urban areas but inappropriate for motorways. Variable speed limits, which alter the maximum according to conditions, are expensive to install but can offer great advantages in terms of reduced casualties. Built-in speed limitation devices in cars can offer some advantages but can also increase driver frustration and give a false sense of security.

Research results came out firmly in favour of harmonised speed limits for European motorways that are the routes mostly likely to be used by non-national drivers.


  Past and ongoing research

ADRIA - research into the development of an advanced crash dummy to test the effects of frontal crashes especially on the face.
ARROWS - research into how to improve safety conditions at roadworks.
CERTIFIED - an investigation of how best to check for drugs and medicines that can damage driver performance.
DUMAS - finding out why there has been a slow take up of co-ordinated policies to cut urban accidents.
ECBOS - developing cost-effective tests for evaluating accidents and types of injuries that occur.
ESCAPE - to determine levels of non-compliance with traffic laws, how this contributes to accidents and whether this can be improved.
FID - developing a new worldwide test dummy for frontal collisions
GAGET - an assessment of how driver behaviour can be improved by safety devices within cars.
MASTER - investigates how best to manage speeding on European roads.
PROMISING - measures to promote safety for vulnerable road users.
ROSITA - road side testing assessment
SAFESTAR - has made practical safety suggestions for road design and re-design
STAIRS - standardisation of accident injury and registration systems
TROPIC - examining the effect of speed information to car instrument panels or on motorways.

Adopting best practice
Wide range of projects
Research into bus and coach safety
Problems of speeding
Improved frontal impact protection
Past and ongoing research

Key EU-funded research

Transportation safety research is carried out as part of the Sustainable mobility and intermodality key action. Major projects underway include:

ECBOS - research into bus and coach safety
FID - improved frontal impact protection
MASTER - research into the problem of speeding

A fuller list may be found here.

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