OPINION: Westminster leadership on road safety? Don’t hold your breath

13.18 | 8 August 2022 | | 6 comments

Following the delay to the DfT’s new Road Safety Strategic Framework, David Davies from PACTS has criticised the ‘absence of national leadership’ which he fears could lead to ‘more death and injury on the roads’.

Many of us in the road safety sector have been looking forward to the Department for Transport’s Road Safety Strategic Framework. The 2019 Statement had run its course and the strategic vacuum was becoming increasingly evident. Unfortunately, the July launch event was torpedoed by the extreme heat warning.

A lot of work went into preparing the framework by civil servants, the road safety community and others. We were told it had ministerial and cross-departmental sign-off. The press release had been crafted, with supportive statements from selected stakeholders, and a slot had been found in that all-controlling government media grid.

But should we blame the Met Office for the non-appearance of the framework? Announced in July 2021, it was already overdue. We have come through two years of pandemic in which important government statements were published and virtual meetings replaced physical ones. Forty degrees may have buckled roads and rail lines, but did that really prevent the internet from circulating a few megabytes?

We are now supposed to wait until the autumn – a very elastic season in government publishing terms. With a new Prime Minister and, very likely, a major cabinet reshuffle and changes of civil servants, is a lowly road safety document likely to be a priority, under Liz or Rishi?

This government has a track record of failing to publish important road safety documents. I tweeted in January about eight which were due, if not well overdue. Seven months later, only two have appeared.

The DfT has responded to its consultation on a Road Collision Investigation Branch. It has also issued a call for evidence on Road Traffic Law – but concerning drug driving, not drink driving as the Lord Brooke and other Peers requested.

There is still no sign of:

  • A response to the Roads Policing Review call for evidence, issued July 2020;
  • The WSP/ Loughborough University report for DfT on road safety targets, delivered January 2021;
  • The DfT monitoring report on the e-scooter rental trials, originally due in September 2021 but now to be published “later this year”;
  • A consultation on penalties for seat belt offences – agreed in 2020 but put back to focus on amending the mobile phone law (completed March 2022);
  • Regulations to modernise vehicle safety standards. The Government has not implemented the regulations it previously endorsed and now in force in the EU. It will now “do what is in the UK’s interests”. (Apart from the uncertainty and delay, the word “safety” is conspicuously absent.)

And, of course, the Road Safety Strategic Framework.

For two decades prior to 2010 the UK had road safety strategies with analysis, priorities, targets, action plans and more. Over the past ten years things have regressed.

The 2011 Strategic Framework for Road Safety saw an end to two decades of national strategies with casualty reduction targets. However, civil servants cunningly included forecasts and estimated that the actions would reduce casualties by about 37% by 2020. There was even a commitment to monitor performance – against a new road safety outcomes framework which was not a million miles away from the indicators now being advocated for the safe system.

This was replaced by the 2015 British Road Safety Statement. This acknowledged the “safe systems approach” but explicitly rejected targets and focused on road user behaviour while lacking anything on significant on safe speeds, infrastructure or performance indicators.

Four years later, along came The Road Safety Statement 2019: A Lifetime of Road Safety. Its three parts addressed safer people, safer roads and safer vehicles but again omitted safe speeds, targets or indicators. It contained a two-year action plan with some valuable items, not least the Road Collison Investigation Project. Officials told road safety stakeholders that this was a short-term holding plan during which time they would put in place the building blocks for a more ambitious, comprehensive, long-term strategy.

That is what we have been hoping for in the new framework. But expectations have already been dampened down. Ministers have recently stated it will be about long-term vision [but without targets] and new cross-departmental governance structure will “explore key issues with actions plans being developed at a later date”. No doubt there will be lots about the Road Safety Investigation Branch, a major step for which we whole-heartily praise this government. But one initiative does not a strategy make.

Why is it so difficult for a government that has demonstrated ambition and delivery to come up with a strategy to kill far fewer people on the roads? This government has rolled out one of the fastest Covid vaccination programmes, announced an end to production of petrol and diesel cars by 2030, and endorsed a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. By comparison, road safety should be slam-dunk! It need not be nearly as expensive or controversial as these bigger agendas. It just needs leadership – which seems to be sadly lacking.

The disgrace is that the delay means more death and injury on the roads. After the substantial drop in 2020 the signs are that casualties are returning to broadly pre-pandemic levels. All the talk about building back greener, safer etc seem to have faded. After a period when rapid and dramatic change was shown to be possible, we are drifting back to old ways.

In 2011 the UK had the lowest rate of deaths of any European country, ahead of Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands and all those other good performers. By 2021 the UK had slipped to fifth, with one of the lowest rates of improvement over that decade. The UK was also one of the few countries without a strategy or targets. (Scotland and other parts of the UK which do have these things will have to forgive my brevity here.)

I’m sometimes asked by European colleagues what it is about the UK that gives it a good road safety record (based on fatalities per population). My unscientific answer is that the UK does a lot of things very competently and has well-established systems and many dedicated professionals. The UK hasn’t gone for fancy visions, titles or straplines but we have generally delivered. It’s about time the government recognised how lucky they are and got firmly behind the road safety community. If not, I fear disillusionment will set in and we will slip badly. There are many authorities, organisations and individuals committed to the cause but in the absence of national leadership, they will struggle. And even more people will pay with their lives.

David G Davies
Executive Director



Comment on this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Report a reader comment

Order by Latest first | Oldest first | Highest rated | Lowest rated

    > but despite these, some motorists will still attempt to go around them at the limit of adhesion without knowing what lies around the bend, purely for the thrill of it, it would seem. Why

    Hmm. I might suggest it’s a combinations of drivers not having the skills (or more appropriately, given the ability to learn) to “make progress” safely but that tends to be a rather awkward topic of discussion on here.

    > You keep re-inforcing the message that roads are shared public spaces and not areas for leisure based risk-taking to satisfy egos

    So, let’s ban cycling! A shame, as I’ve only just got back into long distance rural cycling.

    David Weston, Newcastle upon Tyne
    Agree (1) | Disagree (1)

    To answer Hugh

    You call out such behaviour as anti-social, dangerous and unwise. You keep re-inforcing the message that roads are shared public spaces and not areas for leisure based risk-taking to satisfy egos.

    You set laws which enable you to prescribe deterrents for those who wish to ignore the needs of other road users.

    You recognise “driver exceptionalism” when it’s encountered, and call out the selfishness and danger that is implied by ignoring rules.

    And as David says, and I agree with him 100%, you end the complacency at government level that says “we don’t need targets because we are already have some of the safest roads in the world”. We may have some of those roads, but the majority are not safe for pedestrians and cyclists where the stats show we are behind so many other countries in Europe and beyond.

    What we don’t do is sit back, “wring our hands” and say “that’s drivers for you”.

    Rod King, Lymm
    Agree (1) | Disagree (1)


    You seem to be advocating a total abandonment of government policy or action. Do you apply that to all areas of life? Pubic health, environment, climate, economy??

    Of course, individuals also have responsibilities and Safe System approach acknowledges that. But so do the authorities.

    David Davies
    Agree (7) | Disagree (0)

    Hugh -yes idiots behave badly ; that isn’t news.
    We will never get rid of idiots so the real question is how do you minimise the risk of idiots killing someone ?
    That is the job of governments.

    Paul Luton, Teddington
    Agree (9) | Disagree (0)

    I wholeheartedly agree with David.

    Where are the politicians and senior civil servants with a true will to make our roads safer ?

    Road safety is currently and for the past many years being performed as best as possible by charities like Brake, by advisors like David and the team at PACTS, and by suppliers like myself. Let us not forget the ever thinning ‘blue line’ of Roads Policing.

    Drug drive prosecutions in 2021 were 28,000 compared with 34,000 drink drive. This will significantly change to mode drug drive than drink drive in 2022 figures. This ‘system’ is severely constrained by confirmation in blood. A simple switch to a saliva sample at the roadside will double this prosecution rate! This has been prove to work perfectly securely in Australia, France and across Europe. Where are the civil servants and politicians with the strength of character to make this decision?

    We’ll done for speaking up David.

    Ean Lewin, Preston
    Agree (3) | Disagree (1)

    When I see drivers (or any road users for that matter – but usually drivers) behaving in a manner likely to end in a collision, whether slight or serious, I never blame the government or its local agencies, I blame the individuals themselves.

    It isn’t a question of ‘leadership’ or ‘strategies’ etc. it’s the individuals not caring enough to want to take responsibility for their own actions, no matter how many warning signs and/or advertising campaigns are thrown at them.

    For example, there are a couple of bends on my local ‘B’ road that have VAS signs, ‘SLOW’ marking, chevrons etc. but despite these, some motorists will still attempt to go around them at the limit of adhesion without knowing what lies around the bend, purely for the thrill of it, it would seem. Why? and how would PACTS suggest that the authorities address that sort of entrenched mentality and behaviour?

    Hugh Jones, Cheshire
    Agree (8) | Disagree (10)

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.