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The integrated path to road safety

The recent Road Safety Forum in Leipzig, Germany, asked participants to fasten their seatbelts and, together, chart an integrated path to safer roads and vehicles.

Image of broken glass on road © Peter Gutierrez
© Peter Gutierrez

Traffic on Europe’s roads has tripled since 1970. Annual road fatalities exceed 50 000, with an additional 1.7 million or so injured. The socio-economic cost of road accidents is estimated at €200 billion a year, or 2% of the Union’s gross domestic product.

The one-day gathering in Leipzig – the third of its kind – drew high-level participants from top automakers in Europe, Japan and the United States, public road-safety bodies, academia, national authorities, as well as the European Commission. The conference covered the various aspects of road safety, including accident research, active/passive safety, road safety audits, driver education and the assessment of cars.

The Research Directorate-General’s Luisa Prista gave a rundown of EU-funded road safety research under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6, 2002-2006) and under the forthcoming FP7 (2007-2013). She explained that road safety was at the heart of the EU policy agenda, pointing to the Transport White Paper of 2001 and the European Road Safety Action Programme of 2003, both of which are up for review this year.

The mid-term review of the White Paper revealed that road traffic had grown by 30% and the number of passengers by 17% between 2001 and 2005, while the Union’s population grew by 20% and the Union’s surface area by 25% as a result of enlargement. Nevertheless, the number of fatalities fell by 17.5% to 41 600 which is half way towards the goal of 25 000 by 2010.

Thus, in spite of efforts to enhance road safety at national and European levels, we are still far from the target and need to do more. The Commission can use a number of instruments to promote greater safety on Europe’s roads, such as research funding, awareness raising and training campaigns, best practice guidelines, and – when needed – legislation.

The research fast lane

Image of Luisa Prista
Luisa Prista

Road safety research has been an important focus of EU-funded research, starting with FP4 (1994-1998). Since 1994, €150 million of Union funding has been put towards passive and active safety technologies, infrastructure safety, user behaviour and accidentology. Projects selected in a FP6 joint call for proposal involving all concerned EC services include SafetyNet, APROSYS, APSN, PReVENT, AIDE, GST and Humanist.

In addition to investing money, EU research has scored other notable successes, namely by helping reduce the kind of fragmentation that has dogged European research efforts for years. It has also contributed to building a critical mass in the area by encouraging the European research community to venture together down the same road.

Additionally, it has helped to build consensus among stakeholders by encouraging them to exchange views, visions and opinions. One major example of this are the various Technology Platforms which the Commission has been helping to set up in recent years. Road safety is covered by the European Road Transport Research Advisory Council (ERTRAC).

FP7 will continue along the path set out by previous programmes, but will also target new avenues off the beaten track. It will aim to achieve an integrated system approach to road safety covering all transport vehicles as well as vulnerable groups in the population. Road safety will be covered mainly under the ‘Transport’ theme of FP7’s ‘Co-operation’ programme, but special attention will also be devoted to the issue under the ‘ICT’ theme.

All roads lead to common challenges

Presentations by speakers from the United States and Japan showed that, although each part of the world faces its own particular problems, there are far more common challenges. Joseph N. Kanianthra of the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration focused on recent NHTSA initiatives aiming to enhance road safety.

He explained that, in the United States which has a road fatality rate of over 30 000 a year, nine out of ten crashes are due to driver-related factors. American statistics reveal that safety belts had a significant mitigating impact on all types of crashes, which suggests a strong case for advanced car seating restraint systems.

In fact, he argued, advanced technologies are the way forward because they offer the potential to save lives, prevent injuries and reduce the economic impact of road accidents by developing ‘total safety’ systems. These systems employ a mix of electronic detection, occupant readiness monitoring and anticipatory driving assistance.

Kaneo Hiramatsu of the Japan Automobile Research Institute provided the forum with perspectives on road safety in Japan. In 2004, Japan registered more than 7 300 traffic fatalities. Traffic deaths per 100 000 people have been decreasing in recent years, but the rate is now negligible.

Japan has introduced a suite of passive (e.g. pedestrian protection) and active (e.g. driver assistance systems) safety measures to lower the toll of road accidents. To reduce traffic accidents, active safety technologies need to be promoted more actively, Hiramatsu suggested.

Safety as a function of age

Lars Gunnarson of the European Driving Schools Association presented strategies for reducing the accident rate among young drivers, a particular risk group. Although developing good driving skills is important, he pointed out that skilled drivers are not necessarily safe one.

This implies that there is a lot of room for improvement in how drivers are trained and tested. There is potential to adjust the teaching system to promote a culture of safe driving, Gunnarson suggested – and driving schools have an important role to play in this capacity.

In Sweden, there is a shift in focus away from rules and towards the underlying social attitudes that prompt people to drink and drive. In the near future, all learner drivers will receive a mandatory three-hour session highlighting the dangers of drinking and driving, as well as drug use and fatigue. The government is also considering introducing alcohol locks in driving school cars by 2012.