By Lembit Öpik, Director of Communications and Public Affairs, MAG

Lembit Öpik, MAG’s Director of Communications and Public Affairs, reviews the reality behind the accident statistics in the Untied Kingdom. The conclusion: unless breakthrough technology turns up or unless we ban travelling ‘it’s as good as it gets.’

Road safety is reported every week in some context. We’re endlessly told that there is a pressing need to reduce road casualties. You’ll hear phrases like ‘if this measure saves one life, then it’s worth it.’ Such statements typify the thinking of the road safety lobby.

They’re wrong. In reality, it becomes obvious that that ‘saving one life’ is not a blanket justification to introduce any measures, regardless of consequences or costs. After all, how much should we be willing to spend for that life? £100 million? A billion? Ten billion? Clearly not. While the road safety lobby is normally not willing to recognise or admit this, nobody in their right mind would honestly think an unlimited financial commitment is the right strategy when it comes to road safety.

Let’s look at where the UK actually is. Despite the endless preaching from road safety organisations, it looks like there is a floor to how low road deaths can go. In 1979, there were over 6,300 road deaths in the UK. By 2018 this had reduced to fewer than 1,800, less than a third the number from three decades ago. However, the story is rather different if you look at the recent past. Since 2012, death rates have actually flat lined. There has not really been much reduction in the number of fatalities, despite vigorous efforts by the road safety lobby to drive the enforcement of new measures. This means that, despite the best efforts of road safety charities to pressurise more and more control over Britain’s roads, they simply haven’t got the numbers down.

For motorcycles, the death rates tell the same story. Since 2012, once again there has been no real trend up or down in deaths. The statistics reflect the general trends for traffic as a whole.


Fatalities in reported road accidents GB 1979-2017


Why the stubborn refusal of the figures to go down in recent years? Is this bad? It depends on whether you want to make a political statement or an honest assessment of the dynamics at play here. Let’s skip the politics and look at the facts.

The UK has the lowest deaths per kilometre in the European Union. You’re in less danger in this country than in any nation on the continent. That’s a success story. It is MAG’s belief that there is very little possibility to reduce these levels further without a radical breakthrough.


Number of motorcyclists killed compared with motorcycle traffic (billion vehicle miles) GB 2007-2017


What kind of radical breakthrough might this be? There seem only two avenues that can be meaningfully pursued. Either there is a great leap forward in terms of technology. Or we ban some or all road travel, or at least severely restrict it.

Currently, there are different technical solutions being offered to reduce safety. Autonomous vehicles are touted as the big solution by taking human error out of the system. Only they don’t. As long as they co-exist with human drivers, then the faster reacting autonomous cars risk causing secondary accident issues with other vehicle users. These may, over time reduce casualties. However, there is no reason to expect a breakthrough like that in the near future. To be more precise, there’s no reason to bet on it. If it happens, it happens.

This leaves the other thing – strict restrictions on the way we ride (or drive). That is also fraught with problems. Circumstantial data indicates that 20 mph limits have actually increased road casualties, probably thanks to a combination of in-attention, false confidence and frustration. Nothing has really delivered anything special even though many things have been tried.

You may feel that there is a way to reduce accident casualties further for bikers and car drivers. Let us know. We are open to alternative perspectives. When you do write in, I’d ask you to cite the reasons and any data backing your different perspective. In the meantime, MAG suggests that the UK has gone low as we can cost-efficiently go with road safety. The implication is clear. It is not wise to pretend we can effectively eliminate ‘KSIs’ - killed and seriously injured - and the only thing that’s really achieved by ever more stringent safety limits is a limit on our liberty.

MAG doesn’t want any rider to die on a motorbike. But we also accept that life is a risk calculation. At some point, the ‘actuarial risk’ versus cost of reducing it are roughly balanced. We believe that point is now.

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