Road safety performance: is Britain as ‘SUNny’ as we think?

By Oliver Carsten, Professor of Transport Safety

The three countries in the world that do best in terms of road safety performance – Sweden, the UK and the Netherlands – are collectively termed the SUNflower countries based on the fact that their initial letters spell SUN. The name was first applied in a report from SWOV by Matthijs Koornstra and others in 2002 entitled SUNflower: a comparative study of the development of road safety in Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. Since then, these countries have continued to perform rather well with Great Britain often ranking as the best in the world. The International Transport Forum’s Road Safety Annual Report 2013 rates the UK as a top performer and the Daily Mail proudly announced on 10 September 2010 that Britain was first in the world in road deaths per 100,000 population. Even the Americans are envious as evidenced by a recent report from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute with the title Why is road safety in the U.S. not on par with Sweden, the UK, and the Netherlands.

It is also noteworthy that, we along with the other SUN countries, have continued to improve over the years. The accompanying chart shows road deaths per million population for the three countries from 2000 onwards. It can be seen that all three have improved, but in the last few years Great Britain and Sweden have improved considerably more than the Netherlands, and that, compared to Sweden, British performance has been one of steady gains.

But are we really as good as we claim to be? We are continually being told that we don’t exercise enough and that we should walk and cycle more. The latest pronouncement was a 2013 report from the Ramblers and Macmillan Cancer Support stating that being more active – moderate physical exercise for just 150 minutes a week – could save 37,000 lives a year. It can be argued that our comparative lack of exercise and disdain for walking and cycling makes the country look good in terms of road safety performance. For travel on foot or by bicycle is far more dangerous than travel in a car. That is why we talk about “vulnerable” modes.

So how would our national performance look if the average Brit had the modal split of the average Swede or Dutch person? I have done a little bit of rooting around in the travel statistics of the three countries in order to answer this question. My assumption is that the British safety performance stays as it is in 2012, but that we travel as much or as little as the Swedes and Dutch.
So first of all, let’s become Swedes. Per head of population, they walk about 1.6 times as much as we do and cycle 2.6 time as far each year. On average, they motorcycle just a little more than we do and travel by car a little less (approximately 91 percent of our car travel). The average Swedish truck travels somewhat less than the average British truck (true for both light and heavy trucks), but the average Swedish bus covers twice the annual mileage of a British bus. If we then adjust the British fatalities to each group of road users by the ratio of Swedish to British travel, we end up with considerably more pedestrian and cyclist deaths than we have now: 1,002 a year as compared with 538 now. Our overall number of road deaths per million population increases from 28 to 34, which puts us well behind Sweden, Denmark and Norway. So it does appear to be true that our reluctance to walk and cycle makes us look unduly good.

Then we can do the same calculation and become Dutch. The Dutch walk about the same amount as we do, but it’s no surprise that they cycle far more – on average 10.9 time as much. We cycle 85km per person per year and they cycle 923km a year. But – and this was more of a surprise to me – they motorcycle far more than we do: 8.8 times as much per person. Admittedly in the Dutch case that is mainly on mopeds and scooters whereas we tend to ride big bikes. But any kind of motorcycle use is inherently risky. If we adjust only for motorised vehicle travel by vehicle with four or more wheels and for walking and cycling (and ignore the difference in motorcycling), then the British performance in road deaths per million population falls from 28 to 46. That puts our performance below that of the Netherlands itself as well as below that of Ireland, Spain, Germany and Japan.

If we include the motorcycle travel in the calculation, then we come out far worse. We are now at 87 road deaths per million population which is equal in performance to Latvia. So from being top, we have moved to being one of the worst in the EU.

This exercise should stop us from being so self-congratulatory. If we aspire to being best in the world, then we should have world-leading safety performance in the vulnerable modes too.

Oliver Carsten, Professor of Transport Safety
March 2014