Last reviewed 19 October 2020

The Government publishes annual road accident statistics some nine months in arrears of the year in question and the 2019 figures have just been made available. Headline figures may be “cherry-picked” to make a particular point but deeper investigation can be useful to road transport operators by providing an indication of where would be the most effective areas to concentrate monitoring and training of drivers in order to improve road safety. Richard Smith looks at some details of the 2019 figures with this in mind.

Headlines

Compared with 2018, the overall number of injury accidents in Great Britain fell by 4% in 2019 against a zero change in the amount of road traffic.

Provisional figures show that internationally the UK had the fifth lowest death rate at 27 per million population, bettered only by Sweden and Switzerland at 22, Norway at 20 and Iceland at 17. Of the home nations, the rates per million population for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland were slightly worse than for England.

All other European countries had notably higher rates, most of them very much higher.

Once again, as every year, the biggest contributory factor in all road accidents was driver error, recorded as a contributory factor in 40% of the time. The number has, however, been steadily falling since 2015, as have the numbers for all the other top ten factors — some by as much as a half compared with that year — although the percentage contributions remains about the same, indicating that although the number of vehicles involved in accidents may be falling the same errors continue to be made.

Limitations

Apart from the international comparison, the figures are produced from the STATS19 report completed by a police officer following an accident where there is police attendance. Therefore, while the figures will include all accidents where there is a need for medical assistance, they will not include more minor accidents where there are no injuries or police attendance. Where contributory factors are concerned these are the opinion of the police officer completing the STATS19 form and in many cases two or more factors may be cited for any number of vehicles involved in a single accident so percentages do not necessarily always add up to 100 and data cannot be directly compared between different tables.

Contributory factors

While headline figures are all very well and will be used by many people with varied interpretations, the key information as far as operators are concerned will lie in a closer analysis of the detailed statistics, which in various tables allocate contributory factors to the different categories of road user, including pedestrians, enabling a comparison between them.

When looking at accident reduction there is, as with most other things, a law of diminishing marginal returns in operation. This means that the nearer to zero the figure gets, the more difficult (and expensive) it is to make any further improvement. The biggest improvements will come, therefore, from tackling the causes with the biggest numbers rather than to continue plugging away at the same factors that have very low numbers in an inevitably futile attempt to reach zero.

Driver error

The most common contributory factor every year is “failed to look properly” (21% of all recorded accidents), followed by “failed to judge other person’s path or speed” at 11%. Failing to look properly was consistently the highest factor across all types of road user at about 20%, though higher for van drivers (25%) and lower for motorcyclists (16%), and bus and coach drivers (11%). Motorcyclists though had a higher propensity to misjudge the path or speed of other vehicles (15%) and to lose control (10%). Both “failed to look” and “failed to judge other vehicle’s path or speed” were the highest factors for pedestrians too and “pedestrian failed to look properly” actually came in at number 6 in the top 10 factors.

Vehicle defects

Vehicle defects figured in only 1% of accidents overall with defective brakes the most common failing, followed by defective tyres. For larger goods vehicles vehicle defects featured in 2% of accidents involving them although the actual number was quite small at 58. For pedal cycles defects were also present 2% of the time but this equated to 148 cases. For buses or coaches in accidents only 9 with defects were recorded.

Injudicious action

Exceeding the speed limit only just crept into the top 10 factors at number 9. One place higher was “travelling too fast for the conditions” (ie but not exceeding the speed limit), each being recorded 3% of the time. Motorcyclists in accidents were most likely to have been exceeding the speed limit at 6% compared with 1% of goods vehicle drivers and fewer than 1% of bus and coach drivers.

Interestingly, the actual number of pedal cycles exceeding the speed limit involved in accidents was 23 compared with 30 for larger goods vehicles and 11 for buses or coaches. Equally, the number of goods vehicles travelling too fast for the conditions was 59 (2%) against 186 for cyclists (also 2%) and 545 for motorcyclists (4%).

For bus and coach drivers the figure was just 1%, equivalent to 20 cases.

Accidents as a result of disobedience to other road traffic laws also featured only to a relatively small extent, spread more or less equally across all types of road user in terms of percentages, though the total figure recorded against pedal cyclists for the five specific offences recorded was approximately 4 times greater than for lorry drivers and more than 10 times greater than for bus and coach drivers.

Apart from speed, the most common fault in this category for all types of road user except cyclists was “following too closely”. For cyclists it came second, a long way behind the 567 cases of “entering road from pavement”.

Alcohol

Impairment by alcohol featured in just once for bus and coach drivers and 16 times for larger goods vehicle drivers, less than 1% in both cases. Unsurprisingly, the biggest percentage was for car drivers (4%) with van drivers at 3% but motorcyclists and pedal cyclists only just behind at 2% each — 143 cyclists and 208 motorcyclists.

Mobile Phones

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 nine times for goods vehicle drivers but 42 times for van drivers. Car drivers were the worst at 330 but both motor and pedal cyclists featured significantly at 16 times and 17 times respectively.

Conclusion and safety issues for 2020

Detailed inspection of the data shows that the issues given the highest media profile actually feature a minority of the time in road accidents. Though that is not an excuse to ignore those or reduce the level of enforcement, it does suggest that imposing ever more draconian penalties for those high-profile issues may have little effect on reducing the numbers. It also suggests that more attention given to the factors with much bigger numbers may have a greater effect in reducing accidents.

Clearly, the big issue concerns driver observation of what is going on around and especially awareness of the likelihood of careless or illegal behaviour by other road users. Taking all the other contributory factors and types of road user into consideration it seems that a professional driver must not only drive carefully and legally at all times but to avoid an accident must also be prepared to anticipate illegal and/or dangerous behaviour by those other road users. This is the essence of defensive driving and operators would do well to provide appropriate tuition and assessment in this for their drivers.

Where advanced driver assistance systems are available drivers should be instructed to make full use of them. In the light of proposed changes to the Highway Code that will make motor vehicle drivers, especially large goods vehicle drivers, responsible for the safety of cyclists and pedestrians (there is even the suggestion that in accidents between motor vehicles and these “vulnerable road users” the driver should automatically be considered at fault) where external video recording is not currently used it should certainly be given very serious consideration in case proof of innocence is required in court.