Concern is rising among motoring groups and police forces across Britain, as road deaths show an alarming rise for the first time in many years. A series of UK governments, including the present one, have insisted that the UK has the safest roads in Europe, and some of the safest in the world. Consistent innovations, including the online check MOT service, have indeed led to a safe stock of cars, vans and motorbikes on the road network, which itself means fewer crashes and therefore fatalities. However, it seems that technological advances alone are not enough to maintain safety on what is one of the world’s busiest road networks.
The latest statistics available for deaths on the UK’s roads are for 2020. That year saw an average of five fatalities every day, none of which were reported in national news bulletins. Such statistics make the news on local broadcasts, unless linked to “bigger” news stories and trends. That deaths on British roads should rise during a period where road traffic was cut to its lowest level since records began (due to the first covid lockdown) has set alarm bells ringing in a number of national institutions. With much less traffic on the roads, fatalities rose by 5% from 2019.
In fact, the year 2019 was already flagged as far from ideal in terms of road death statistics. It ended a ten year period where numbers had “plateaued”; staying at almost the same level over that time. While this may not in itself appear worrying, for road safety experts it is. This is because, before 2010, road deaths had been steadily decreasing, as such experts say they should. With ever safer cars, as produced by responsible manufacturers and guaranteed by the check MOT system, reasons for road traffic accidents (RTAs) should decrease over time.
If a period of steady decline ended in 2010, in 2020 the situation got much worse. Statistics for that year show that road related incidents were responsible for more human deaths than knife crime. The comparison is dramatic; driving a private vehicle is something much of British society takes as almost a human right, while knife crime is the ongoing subject of much media outrage. The fact that motorists are more dangerous than youth gangs in inner cities is something many people find hard to swallow; in terms of damage to society as a whole, however, that proved to be the truth in 2020.
While these statistics came as a shock to some in the corridors of power and media outlets, they were far from unexpected by others. In particular, the UK’s Police Federation (PF) is in no doubt as to the cause of the rise in road deaths. The PF’s national driver training and pursuits lead points to a sustained period of underinvestment in on-road policing over the period 2010-19 as by far the most important factor in rising fatalities. This view is also supported by the UK’s two leading motoring organisations. All of these point to a drop in the numbers of “cops in cars” by nearly 25% over the decade in question. This in turn is seen as a result of a need to prioritize resources by individual police authorities as central government funding was cut annually.
Not only is there a shortage of actual police officers on the road network, there is also a chronic shortage of working speed camera detector. The BBC’s Panorama programme submitted a freedom of information (FOI) request which showed that almost half of the UK’s speed cameras don’t work. As they suffer from wear and tear and other factors, once the cameras have stopped functioning, they are neither repaired are replaced, as police forces cannot find the funds to do either. The programme pointed to one authority area where officers used hand held cameras, and three which didn’t have any at all.
As if increasing numbers of avoidable fatalities were not a bad enough development, the PF points to further problems caused by under-policing of the road network. While many modern vehicles have dash-cams, and these can be used to identify offending vehicles, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Statistics show that people responsible for road traffic crimes are also 60% more likely to be responsible for a wide range of other crimes. These people may receive an automatic fine for a traffic offence, but, whether they pay it or not, they’re more likely than most to have caused other harm in the meantime.