Are UK roads safer than ever?

The number of people killed on UK roads has been in steady decline for the best part of a decade, and the trend continued throughout 2013 when the number of road deaths reached its lowest level since record began in 1926.
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The latest figures released by the Department for Transport show that, while traffic levels remained roughly the same between 2012 and 2013, the number of road fatalities dropped by 2% - and there was a 6% decrease in the number of people seriously injured on the roads.

Fatality rates

The stats show that there were 1,713 people killed on UK roads last year, an average of four people every day. While this sounds like a lot (and one is too many, of course), it’s worth considering that just eight years ago twice as many people were killed on UK roads on a daily basis. Overall, a total of 138,660 personal injury road accidents of all severities were reported to the police last year – the fewest reported accidents in a single year apart from 1926 and 1927, the first two years national records were kept (when, obviously, there were far fewer cars on the road). Here’s how 2013’s road casualties break down by road user…
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*‘Other’ consists mainly of goods vehicles and bus and coach occupants. Percentages do not add up to 100% as a result of rounding.

Casualty breakdown

As in previous years, car occupants made up the largest casualty group in 2013 – which makes sense as there are more car occupants on the roads than any other type of road user. Of the 1,713 people killed in road accidents, 785 (46%) were people in cars. However, as with all road casualties, the number of car occupants killed on the road is also on the decline, down 2% on 2012 and by almost half (44%) on the 2005-2009 average. The number of car occupants seriously injured fell by 7% in 2013 and there were 8% fewer reported road casualties compared with 2012. 398 pedestrians were killed on UK roads last year, 5% fewer than in 2012, while the 4,998 pedestrians seriously injured represented a 10% drop on the 2012 figure. And the number of kids killed on the roads also dropped for the first time three years, down 13% on 2012 and reversing a trend which saw an increase in the number of child fatalities across 2011 and 2012.

Motorcyclists and cyclists still at most risk

The news for motorcyclists and cyclists, however, was not quite as positive: the number of motorcycle users killed increased by 1% - up from 328 in 2012 to 331 in 2013 - the first increase since 2006.
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And while the number of cyclists killed on the roads dropped by 8% in 2103 – down to 109 from 118 in 2012 – cyclists fatality rates have fluctuated between 100 and 120 during the last six years, so it’s difficult to tell whether this decrease is a one-off. There was something for cyclists to be positive about, however, as the number of serious injuries dropped by 2% to 3,143 in 2013, the first decrease since 2004.

Are our roads getting safer?

There are a number of reasons why the number of people killed and seriously injured on our roads is in decline, one of which, unsurprisingly for the UK, is the weather. As far as rainfall goes, 2012 was the second wettest year on record and was considerably wetter than 2013, particularly during the summer months, which means there would have been fewer vulnerable road users (pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists) on the roads during those months. This means there has to be caution when dealing with number of motorcyclists and cyclists killed during 2013 as it is likely there were far more out on the roads in 2013 than there were in 2012.

Money troubles

A slightly more off-the-wall theory is the economic climate, as the two periods that have seen the most significant fall in road deaths – 1990-94 and 2006-10 – have both coincided with the recessions of 1990-92 and 2008-09. But it’s a fact that cars are getting safer. Manufacturers are having to meet ever more stringent safety criteria and this, coupled with improvements to the road network, will help to cut the severity and number of casualties when they do occur. And it could also be the case that we’re all just becoming a nation of more considerate drivers: the proportion of drivers breaking the speed limit has decreased over the last decade. This means that not only are drivers more likely to avoid accidents completely, those who are involved in a smash are less likely to be killed or seriously injured as speed is a major determinant of the severity of a collision.
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