Last reviewed 3 November 2023
Every year at the end of September, the Government publishes annual road accident statistics and every year publication will be followed by media reports focusing more on the issues popular with pressure groups than those where there is the greatest problem.
This year was no exception, with reports of an increase of 10% in the number of road deaths compared to the previous year, but what was not mentioned was that the figures just published are for the 12 months to April 2022, the first full year since April 2019 without a lockdown, and, as the DfT report points out, when compared with that year, while there was a return to the same traffic levels in 2022 there was actually a decline in fatalities of 2% and a decrease of 12% for casualties of all severities.
There will be more gleaned, however, from a second set of statistics also published: those concerning accidents themselves rather than the consequences, and of most interest is the set on contributory factors. Attention to these may help to prevent accidents happening in the first place and therefore there will be no consequences. This feature identifies the main factors contributing to accidents so that drivers and operators can pay special attention to these areas.
The 2022 figures place the UK in fourth place, equal with Japan and Denmark at 26 fatalities per million population after Norway (21), Sweden (22) and Iceland (23). The next best was the Irish Republic at 31 with all the other European countries having higher rates, most of them much higher, and alarmingly so for eastern European and Balkan countries.
The GB figures are produced from the STATS19 report completed by a police officer following an accident where there is police attendance. Therefore, they will not include accidents where there is no police attendance and/or no STATS19 report.
It is also possible that two or more contributory factors may be recorded for a single vehicle and that there may be contributory factors recorded for more than one vehicle per accident.
The most revealing information as far as operators are concerned comes from a closer analysis of the detailed statistics, especially table 0702 which allocates contributory factors to the different categories of road user, enabling us to see where education and enforcement should most profitably be directed.
The second predictable thing is that every year although the actual numbers may differ, the percentage of accidents attributed to the various causes will remain about the same, showing that the same mistakes are being made year after year with, apparently, nothing being learned. Perhaps this is not surprising since any attention that is given to preventing accidents is directed towards the popular headline issues such as speed and mobile phone use, which are among the smallest contributory factors of all. In particular, the total number of accidents involving the use of a mobile phone was 466, whereas the number involving cyclists entering the road from the pavement was 494.
The evergreen “top of the charts” contributory factor group every year is “driver error” — the cause of 38% of accidents overall in 2022 and more than three times more common than the next group. It was also easily the most common factor across all individual road user categories by a very long way.
This group is sub-divided into 10 elements of which by far the most common is “failed to look properly” (also the most common reason for failing the driving test), involved in 20% of all recorded accidents, the same percentage as last year and again the single greatest factor across all vehicle types except, for some reason, buses and coaches where at 12% it was 1% lower than “sudden braking”. Van drivers topped the chart again in this subcategory, sharing the spot with “other vehicles” (including e-scooters) at 23% of accidents. Bus and coach drivers did best again closely followed by motorcyclists at 15% with both pedal cyclists and HGV drivers at 19%. This is followed by “failed to judge other person’s path or speed” at 10% overall.
Vehicle defects figured in only 1% of total accidents, as in the last three years. This 1% represented 1351 occurrences in total, with buses and coaches accounting for only 11 of them. Defects affecting large goods vehicles occurred 48 times, other vehicles (57) and pedal cycles (162) each accounting for 2% of accidents within their class. The most common element overall in this group, both overall and in every vehicle type except HGV, was defective brakes (571), particularly so for cars, pedal cycles and “other vehicles” at 324, 113 and 26 respectively. For HGVs, individually top spot was held (again) by overloading or poor loading at 30 cases, though down from 42. The same number of cases involved vans.
Illegal, defective or underinflated tyres was the second most common element overall, though no cases were reported for buses and coaches this year. The figure for vans was 26, for HGVs 7 and for cars 291. Perhaps the increased figures for cars particularly indicate that maintenance is being reduced because of general price increases.
Behaviour and experience
This group of factors came second overall again to driver error, on 14% as for the last two years. As usual most of these (by a long way) were due to the driver/rider being “careless, reckless or in a hurry” accounting for 10% alone (the same percentage as last year but 13,142 occurrences — up from 12,330), by a long way the greatest single component in this group for all road users. “Unfamiliar with model of vehicle” occurred eight times for HGVs, 18 times for vans and 3 times for buses and coaches, illustrating the need for transport managers to ensure their drivers have proper familiarisation training before moving to a new model of vehicle.
This group was third overall at 12%, as last year. Exceeding the speed limit was, again as usual, a factor in 4% of all accidents with “travelling too fast for the conditions” (ie but not exceeding the speed limit) just behind on 3% overall, also as usual. After these came “following too closely”, at 2% overall but with vans and HGVs overrepresented at 4% each. Buses and coaches did better this year though, down from 4% last year to 2% this year.
For this group, pedal cycles at 12%, motorcycles at 15% and other vehicles at 13% all continue to illustrate the problems of the Highway Code hierarchy, for example the number of cyclists “entering road from pavement” but also the accidents as a result of disobedience to other road traffic laws. These concern not observing the law regarding traffic signals, Stop and Give Way signs, double white lines, pedestrian crossings and illegal turns or direction of travel and feature only to a relatively small extent overal, but the 666 cases where one of these factors applies to this “vulnerable road user” group as opposed to the 41 for HGVs and 15 for buses and coaches show that the onus may not necessarily always be apportioned fairly.
Impairment or distraction
Impairment by alcohol featured just six times (<1%) for bus and coach drivers and 15 times (1%) for large goods vehicle drivers. Unsurprisingly, the biggest number was for car drivers (equivalent to 4%) and van drivers had the same percentage. “Other vehicles” were only one percent behind though, and motorcyclists and pedal cyclists only just behind that at 2% each — 146 cyclists and 247 motorcyclists. Impairment by drugs (both medicinal and illegal) also occurred in 1762 accidents (an increase of 100 over the previous year), with two for bus and coach drivers and 15 for large goods vehicle drivers. This contrasts with 36 pedal cyclists, 170 motorcyclists, 140 van drivers and 29 “other vehicles”.
Distraction by use of a mobile phone was present less than 1% of the time for all types of road user, appearing only once for bus and coach drivers and 10 times for goods vehicle drivers but 58 times for van drivers. Both motor and pedal cyclists featured significantly in this with 28 times and 31 times respectively along with 10 “other vehicles”.
Also particularly prevalent for cyclists and “other vehicles” in this category were “rider wearing dark clothing” and “not displaying lights”, accounting for 400 accidents between them.
The conclusions to be drawn from a study of these figures are exactly the same as they were last year, unsurprising since the figures themselves are pretty much the same. Certainly the current priorities for publicity and law enforcement are not particularly effective since they are directed at what are already very small numbers of cases. A bigger effect might be had from paying more attention to the big numbers and that is certainly where professional driver and transport managers should be paying particular attention, while also being aware that the Highway Code places a duty on lorry and bus drivers to respond to the reckless and illegal behaviour of others.