Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Safer Cars and more Dangerous Drivers?

Not many people are old enough to remember when the 70MPH limit was introduced. Casualties on motorways went down by 20% as a result. Motoring groups such as the car manufacturers, AA and RAC tried to campaign against the limit, but it enjoyed public support.

But of course that was in the days when motor vehicle technology was pretty crude. Brakes, tyres and safety systems have improved immeasurably since then. Who would want to go back to the bad old days of mobile deathtraps? Well, according to the Government, old cars aren't as bad as some people think. They've decided to exempt vehicles made before 1960 from the MOT test. That's because while they account for 0.6% of vehicles on the road, they are only involved in 0.03% of casualty incidents. In other words, they are about 20 times less likely to be involved in collisions than modern 'safe' cars. If that's not the definition of irony, I'm not sure what is. Even taking into account that classic vehicles typically drive considerably fewer miles than your average car, that's quite some discrepancy. Could it be that their owners are compensating for their cars' lack of grip, unpredictable handling, vague steering and weak braking by driving more carefully and anticipating better?

All this rather casts doubt on the Government's idea that the 70MPH limit should be raised because vehicle technology has improved since it was introduced. The fact is that while vehicle safety is superior compared with 40 years ago, the technology of the most critical part - the driver - is exactly the same. And it's human error that is to blame in most collisions. Not only that, but safety improvements tend to be consumed as performance benefits, according to risk expert John Adams, so the response of a significant number of motorists to safer cars has been to take more risks. They can concentrate on their phone call or their facebook updates while driving, secure in the knowledge that airbags will protect them from the consequences.

Unfortunately, cyclists are not protected from the consequences of risky driving. There's been an increasing weight of evidence that cycling casualties are going up while car occupant casualties are going down. Many people are familiar with the grim statistics from London, where since 2004 the number of cyclist KSIs (killed/seriously injured) has climbed from 340 to 467 annually. In Norwich, there were 7 cyclists KSIs  in 2009/10 and 10 in the year ended 30 April 2012. In Cambridge, there was a 14 per cent rise in the number of cyclists killed or injured in incidents on the county’s roads during 2011 - meaning that one in five serious road casualties was riding a bike.

The government cannot keep telling us to ride bikes, or telling us how it's comparatively safe, while allowing the consequences of irresponsible road use to fall more and more disproportionately on those who create the lowest risk. Cyclists make up a greater and greater proportion of the injury toll on Britain's roads with every passing year, and that is a grave moral wrong.


  1. A few more casualty figures: the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured rose by 43% in Leeds between 2010 and 2011 ( , and by 27% in Suffolk ( and by about 20% in Surrey ($FILE/Item%207%20-%20Annexe%20B.pdf). They fell in Leicestershire though ...

  2. As I drove down the A3 this afternoon, to visit my mother and do some DIY jobs for her, I noticed that hardly anyone was driving faster than 70, no-one faster than perhaps 75 (not for want of opportunity), and most at 60 or below. This is probably - according to press reports - because motorists are now more careful about fuel consumption in these difficult times, and consumption rises linear to speed (because energy required to hold a speed is proportional to the sure of that speed).

    Not that the road was any more welcoming to cyclists. Normally I would regard it as a remarkable sight to see a cyclist on the A3: today I saw 3 but they were all wearing aerodynamic helmets on swanky looking racers, and I think I saw a "Warning - Cyclists" sign. Not sure where the other competitors were but perhaps they bottled out and figured it wasn't worth it?

    I remember some years ago, when car safety was generally less than it is today and Volvos and Saabs were popularly considered to be the safe cars (perhaps because they were advertised as such), it was already being remarked that the middle-aged men who typically drove these cars were driving more dangerously than other drivers, due to "risk compensation". Hardly any surprise then if the trend to higher Euro NCAP scores have led to a general decline in driving standards.

    Sadly, manufacturers have generally worked hard to raise their EuroNCAP game for passenger safety - after all, who wants to sell a dangerous car these days? - but they have been rather less fastidious about exceeding obligatory standards for external eg pedestrian safety, and it seems to me those standards are not set high enough anyway. Admittedly, I haven't seen a new 4x4 with "bull bars" for ages, but the boxy shape and the construction of the front ends is still pretty lethal to anything they hit.

    I used to do my bit about 4x4s with bull bars by carrying stickers to attach to their wing mirrors:

    "Q: what's the difference between a porcupine and a 4x4 with bull bars?
    A: a porcupine has all its pr*cks on the outside"

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