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19th Aug 2022

Analysis

Why is road safety not higher on EU agenda?

  • Last year, 26,000 Europeans died as a result of a traffic accident. (Photo: David Tubau)

The European Commissioner in charge of transport fell short of begging journalists on Thursday (31 March), pleading with them to write about road safety.

“Please, media, join us and help us to raise this issue, to really become a political priority,” Violeta Bulc said at a press conference, after the commission released figures that showed that last year 26,000 Europeans died as a result of a traffic accident.

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  • Annual figures have gone done significantly since 2001, but the decrease has all but stopped (Photo: European Commission)

There were also around 135,000 Europeans who got seriously injured.

While the number of annual deaths has significantly dropped from 54,900 in 2001, the decrease has all but halted in recent years.

In 2015, the figure even went up by 100 deaths compared to the year before, and reached the same level again as in 2013.

“The latest figures are disappointing,” said Bulc.

“We need better enforcement, education, better speed management, safer roads, and safer vehicles. Yes, these measures might be costly, and seem demanding. But can we put really a price tag on life?”

EU member states still have great autonomy over how they improve their roads, so there is little Bulc can do but increase political pressure.

She said Thursday that she had sent letters to all transport ministers, called on member states “to show stronger political commitment”, but also noted there is a gap between promises politicians made and actions on the ground.

“I can tell you that when I discuss with [transport ministers], there is a high level of commitment, and then when we see this implementation on a level of member state, on operational level, something is still failing.”

The commissioner noted that governments are spending “less and less money” on road safety.

There are sharp differences between member states, as can be concluded from the fatality rate per million inhabitants.

With the exception of Malta, which had the lowest fatality rate of 26 per million inhabitants, most of the relativel safer' countries were in northern and western Europe, with 27 fatalities per million in Sweden, and 28 in the Netherlands.

By contrast, the weakest road safety records are held by eastern members: Romania (95 fatalities per million inhabitants), Bulgaria (95), Latvia (94), Lithuania (82), and Croatia (82).

But even the 'safest' countries need to work harder, Bulc said.

“Road safety is not about numbers or percentages. Behind each and every number, there is a story,” she added.

Yet it is mostly from a purely statistical point of view that the case for improving road safety is strongest.

Aside from health-related issues, there are few policy areas that cause more premature deaths in Europe.

Take terrorism, an area even higher on the European agenda after the attack on Brussels last week.

Even Bulc apparently felt the need to mention attacks in her press conference about the road safety figures.

“Last week's tragic events in Brussels, as well as road accidents like the recent bus crashes in Spain and France remind us of [life's] fragility.”

Yet policy responses to those two issues seem completely out of balance, if you only look at the number of deaths they cause.

A 2005 research among mostly western countries showed that on average, the yearly death rate from road injury was around 390 times higher than that from international terrorism.

In 2015, 160 people died in Europe as a result of terrorism, as compared to the 26,000 who died in a traffic accident.

However, counter-terrorism was on the agenda in Brussels much more often than increasing road safety.

Last year, transport ministers met in Brussels five times, and one time informally in Luxembourg. During those so-called Council meetings, the issue of road safety was on the agenda twice.

In June, the issue was scheduled under “any other business”, when ministers were to receive a presentation by the commission of a report on the EU road safety policy framework. In a December meeting, the issue was addressed during a working lunch, but no conclusions or measures were taken.

By contrast, justice and home affairs ministers, who had eleven Council meetings in 2015, spoke at length about counter-terrorism at six of them.

Of course, policymakers and politicians look at many more factors than just fatalities.

After terror attacks, they are under public pressure to announce more measures to prevent future attacks. The state is held responsible for public security, whereas traffic accidents are viewed as a much more individual responsibility.

Earlier this week, US state department official Jeremy Shapiro addressed this when he wrote about his visit to Brussels.

“Outside the train station, I think of the 31 people who were so tragically killed in the metro and at the airport while innocently going about their daily lives,” he wrote.

“But as I watch the Brussels traffic, I’m also thinking about the two or three people who, statistically speaking, died in road accidents that same day in Belgium. They were also going about their daily lives and probably also died tragically.”

The former director of research at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution gave three explanations for why people demand what he called a “disproportionate reaction to terrorism”.

One: humans are unable to differentiate between anecdotal evidence and statistics.

“Statistically speaking, because I am at greater risk from traffic accidents than from terrorism, my mother should have advised me to stay off the roads, not avoid Brussels.”

Two: intense global news media coverage of attacks “has made terrorism a much more effective tactic than it was once was”. And third, people tend to overestimate threats if the enemy that causes it is foreign.

However, Shapiro also pointed out that it is unlikely that this will change.

EU commissioner Bulc did provide one glimmer of light. She said she was due to test a self-driving car next month, hinting that perhaps we should look to technology instead of politicians to makes Europe's roads safer.

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