In May 2018, the European Commission (EC) took a new approach to the European Union’s (EU) road safety policy and published a new medium-term strategic plan. Providing more background on the development, the staff working document alarmingly noted that “the number of people killed in road crashes around the world continues to increase.” Are legislators the only ones responsible for reducing road fatalities, or are businesses and individuals responsible as well?
The EC quoted the World Health Organization’s (WHO) numbers, which said that more than 1.3 million people have perished on the road in 2016. Still, the EC noted that the EU was “doing relatively well.” At the time, the EC warned that “progress in reducing EU-wide road fatality rates has stagnated in recent years”, adding that the “EU’s current medium-term target, to halve the number of road deaths between 2010 and 2020, will be reached.”
Looking at Eurostat statistics (updated in June 2023), between 2011 and 2021, the number of road accident fatalities has been going down steadily: from 28,730 to 19,917. The year 2020 resulted in a massive dip in numbers, which was understandable due to the lifestyle change amidst the pandemic. However, in February 2023, the EC noted that 20,600 people were killed on the road in 2022. The Commission said that while “many of the gains achieved during the COVID-19 period […] have not been lost”, the “progress has been very uneven between Member States.”
Calling for Joint Responsibility
In May 2023, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) cited the same 2022 data as the EC, noting that the increase in fatalities was “reason enough for our auditors to launch an audit on road safety to check whether the EU seems able to achieve its objectives, i.e. halving the deaths and serious injuries by 2030 and reducing them to almost zero by 2050.”
According to the ECA, it will “probe whether the Commission put in place suitable measures to meet the EU’s road safety objectives” and “look into the design and selection processes for EU-funded infrastructure projects dealing with road safety in order to see whether they optimised their contribution to the EU’s road safety objectives.”
Antonio Avenoso, the Executive Director at European Transport Safety Council (ETSC), in his foreword on the 15th Road Safety Performance Index Report, said that every road participant “has the right and responsibility to move around without risking their own life or the lives of others.” Furthermore, every policymaker has a “responsibility to build the Safe System that helps protect everyone.”
PwC, in a guide that aims to help policymakers reduce road fatalities, noted that effective and inclusive partnerships are one of the characteristics of a good strategy. Explaining further, the audit and consultation firm added that the “reduction of road traffic fatalities requires the contribution of a number of interdependent agencies and bodies,” continuing that an effective strategy “needs to have clear governance arrangements that include all contributing agencies with clear roles and responsibilities.”
When the United Nations (UN) launched a global campaign, “Make a Safety Statement,” to tackle road fatalities, the campaign quoted Adina Vălean, the European Commissioner for Transport, saying that reducing road deaths is a joint responsibility: “It requires national and local actors, as well as civil society and industry, to come together to make our roads, vehicles, and drivers safer.”
Companies have also taken the initiative to ensure their drivers are safe. After all, in a June 2012 report, “accidents involving heavy goods vehicles were responsible for more than 1 200 deaths per year and hence work to prevent accidents of this kind needed to continue.”
The report focused on the dangers of blind zones. London, the capital of the United Kingdom (UK), which left the EU on February 1, 2023, implemented the Direct Vision Standard (DVS) for heavy goods vehicles (HGV) traveling into Greater London. According to Transport for London (TfL), DVS “measures how much an HGV driver can see directly through their cab windows” and is part of the mayor’s plans to “eliminate all deaths and serious injuries on London’s transport network by 2041.”
With the dawn of new technologies, especially those driven by artificial intelligence (AI), road safety could further improve. According to a UN report, “AI can help in different ways, including better collection and analysis of crash data, enhancing road infrastructure, increasing the efficiency of post-crash response, and inspiring innovation in the regulatory frameworks.”
The UN’s Road Safety Envoy Jean Todt, who was also the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Ferrari and the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), said that “there is an untapped opportunity to harness AI to close the digital and road safety divide around the world.” However, Todt also noted that connected vehicles are not present where the most significant number of road fatalities occur, highlighting that “many countries could not support autonomous driving anytime soon.”
In Europe, the EC highlighted FitDrive as another example of how AI-based technologies can help improve road safety. The system, which has received funds from the EU, monitors and evaluates “driving performance, cognitive load, physical or mental fatigue and reaction time, providing information to drivers, intelligent road systems, and police roadside controls.”
The EC stated that the project is focused on professional drivers and their real-time fitness to drive: “A new monitoring AI-based system will profile the driving behaviour of a specific user after one month of driving; then it will be able to detect anomalous behaviour (with respect to the profiled one) and to provide early warnings.” However, AI can also act as a preventative measure for accidents. For example, using an AI-based planning tool, road freight transportation companies could divert their trucks away from the riskiest – urban ––areas, significantly reducing the risk for truck drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists.
The latter two are some of the most at-risk groups for getting into a fatal collision with a truck since the height of the cabin can prevent a driver from seeing either of the two. At the same time, proper education about safe driving within cities can go a long way, considering that these are typically low-speed zones.
Both technology and behavioural shifts have to be leveraged to improve the safety situation on the roads. Education and training for professional drivers are paramount, since, technically, they are driving the largest units on the road. At the same time, education for other road users is also key, since not everyone might understand that a heavily loaded truck has a longer braking distance or that it cannot begin moving out of a stop as quickly as a car, which can become a potential safety hazard at a busy intersection.
Keeping the challenges and potential solutions in mind, the issue of improving road safety in the EU raises questions about the responsibility of various stakeholders. While legislators play a crucial role in setting policies and regulations, it is evident that reducing road fatalities requires a wider perspective and a joint effort. Businesses, individuals, and policymakers all have roles to play in achieving the EU’s road safety objectives.
Collaborative partnerships, clear governance arrangements, and the integration of technology-based solutions, such as AI, are essential components of a comprehensive strategy. Education and training for both professional drivers and society in general are also critical to enhancing road safety. Ultimately, collective action could make roads safer for all.