Road safety: treading carefully

07 November 2017

With more cars on the road, and at higher speeds, there is an increase in fatal accidents. Journalist Caroline Roberts explores how we can keep each other safe.

Last year saw the highest number of deaths on Britain’s roads since 2011, with an average of five fatalities and 66 serious injuries every day (Department for Transport, 2016). 

Children are among the most vulnerable of road users, with under-16s accounting for 26% of last year’s pedestrian casualties (injuries and deaths). Overall, the number of children killed on the road (69) were up 28% on the previous year (Department for Transport, 2016).


What’s going on?

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason for these statistics, and the report urges some caution in interpretation between years due to changes in reporting systems. But the fact is that tragic casualties are still happening, and there are factors that clearly don’t help road safety. 

For instance, the Department’s figures show that traffic volume has increased by 2.2% since 2015. If the trend continues, it seems reasonable to assume that road safety will become more of an issue. And traffic-calming measures, such as traffic-responsive speed signs, along with road safety officers and school crossing patrols all cost councils money. 

Driver distraction is also a factor. The 2016 RAC motoring report shows that one in five motorists check social media while waiting in traffic, despite this being illegal, and 6% of drivers admit to using their mobile phone ‘all or most of the time’ while they’re behind the wheel. 

And of course, pedestrians of all ages can be distracted by their phones when crossing the road. The AXA RoadSafe Schools report (2013) revealed the average age at which children first own a mobile is 11 years old, with further AXA research showing children are distracted by their phones on school runs (AXA, 2014).

Then there are road speeds. The campaign for Road Safety Week this year (20-26 November) is ‘Speed Down Save Lives’. It makes the point that up to 20mph is the only safe speed in built-up areas that have many pedestrians and cyclists. ‘Up to around the age of 14, children struggle to gauge the speed of cars that are moving faster than 20mph, so this limit is key,’ explains Dave Nichols, community engagement manager with Brake, the charity behind Road Safety Week.

Winter road safety tips

Dark mornings and evenings, and poor weather conditions, make roads more dangerous at this time of year, so pass on this key advice:

  • Wear light-coloured clothing and attach reflective tape to clothing and children’s school rucksacks.
  • Check car and bike lights, and the tread on tyres, weekly. 
  • When driving, remember that braking distances can be doubled in wet and slippery conditions, so allow extra space between you and the car in front. Pedestrians should make sure cars have come to a complete stop before stepping onto crossings. 
  • Keep windscreens clean so it’s easier to see in the dark and when the sun is low.
  • Hoods and scarves can obscure vision and muffle sound so pedestrians should take extra care when crossing the road wearing these. 

Slowing down our towns

Recent research has found that average stopping distances at 30mph are almost double those at 20mph, and that the Highway Code actually underestimates these by around a third (Cuerden, 2017).

‘One of the things deterring children and their parents from walking and cycling is that they feel the roads around them are too fast, reveals Dave. ‘Making them safer will encourage active travel involving walking and cycling, which in turn reduces the number of cars on our roads, and even results in less pollution.’ 

Encouragingly, Brake says that around a quarter of Britain’s urban environments have now adopted 20mph speed limits. While this is a move in the right direction, Brake would like to see this set as a default speed limit for all built-up areas, with councils needing to opt out for roads where faster speeds are appropriate. ‘It will save money on repeater signs and other infrastructure and make it clearer for everyone. People shouldn’t be subject to a postcode lottery.’ 

More progress is being made towards this in Scotland than in other parts of the UK, where Green Party MSP Mark Ruskell has put forward a bill to make 20mph the default speed in urban areas across the country. In Edinburgh, a blanket 20mph limit is currently being rolled out for residential roads, shopping streets and the city centre, and this is due to be completed in 2018. 

Alex Quayle, senior policy officer for active travel charity Sustrans Scotland, which is supporting the moves, says: ‘On average, a one mph decrease in speeds leads to a decrease in collisions of between 4% to 6%, which underlines how much safer our streets can be at slower speeds. Sustrans hopes the Scottish Government will see the enormous benefits of the bill currently under consideration.’ 


Helping young families

As trusted professionals working closely with families and schools, community practitioners are well placed to make a difference on road safety. Tips on paying attention and not being distracted by mobile technology, for example, could go a long way. There are also resources, such as roadsafetygb.org.uk/regions, that list local campaigns and other interventions that professionals could engage with and help to promote in their communities.

And for practitioners working with disadvantaged communities, it’s important to note that there are clear links between social deprivation and child road casualties (RoSPA, 2012).

It’s important that practitioners promote active travel among families to give young children controlled exposure to roads, says Nick Lloyd, road safety manager with RoSPA. ‘When parents walk or cycle their children to school or nursery, rather than bundling them into the car, they’re teaching them valuable road safety skills and preparing them for independence.’ 

These road safety skills include modelling good practice, such as always using a crossing where available and waiting for the green man, even if the road is clear; involving children by asking them to ‘stop, look and listen’; and explaining the dangers of crossing between parked cars.

For older children who are starting to cycle, it’s suggested that parents look into the Bikeability scheme (bikeability.org.uk), which provides cycle safety training. 

Parents with babies as well as other young children may need help to develop strategies for ensuring the family’s safety, such as the use of reins and teaching young children to hold on to the buggy. 

The purchase of a suitable car seat is also an important consideration for the parents of babies and young children, so it’s important that practitioners are well informed on this. Development checks are a good opportunity to remind parents of the need to change the way they transport their baby as it grows. Some parents may also need advice on bike seats and RoSPA has a useful child bike seat fact sheet.

What about elderly road users?

Practitioners working with elderly people, or with families in which grandparents look after children, can help promote road safety in this age group. DVLA figures show that there are more than 4.5 million drivers aged over 70 in the UK (HM Government, 2017). Many people take fewer risks as they grow older and accident figures for elderly drivers are consistently lower than those for some other age groups, such as young men (Musselwhite, 2016).

However, reaction times and hearing often deteriorate with age, and certain health conditions can affect the driving standards of the older driver.

While drivers over 70 are able to continue driving provided they renew their licence every three years and meet the minimum eyesight requirement (HM Government, 2017), health professionals can offer guidance and may find it easier than family members to raise the issue of when it’s time to stop driving. Elderly drivers can be signposted to information sources and assessments such as the Institute of Advanced Motorists’ Mature Driver Review, featured in the recent ITV series 100-year-old driving school.

Mobility problems, slower reactions and less acute vision and hearing also mean that older pedestrians are more vulnerable, so it’s worth reiterating key road safety messages, particularly for those with cognitive decline. Advice could include remembering to use designated crossings and checking carefully before crossing the road. Some people may also need help to map safer routes to places they visit regularly, such as local shops. 

As well as raising road safety awareness in their day-to-day work, Brake hopes that practitioners will get on board with campaigning, particularly for the 20mph limits that can make such a difference, says Dave. ‘Road Safety Week [20-26 November] is a fantastic opportunity for health professionals to work with community groups and road safety officers, and write to MPs, to show there’s a real desire for this in their area.’

Picture credit | iStock



AXA. (2013) Share of serious road accidents involving young children at ten year high, new report reveals. See: bit.ly/2iBeBFi (accessed 25 October 2017).

AXA. (2014) Mobile phone use threatens children’s road safety. See: bit.ly/2y3pfLK (accessed 25 October 2017).

Cuerden R. (2017) The mechanics of emergency braking. See: bit.ly/2yKW659 (accessed 25 October 2017).

Department for Transport. (2016) Reported road casualties Great Britain, annual report: 2016. See: bit.ly/2yNakUR (accessed 25 October 2017).

HM Government. (2017) Renew your driving licence if you’re 70 or over. See: gov.uk/renew-driving-licence-at-70 (accessed 25 October 2017).

HM Government. (2017) GB driving licence data. See: data.gov.uk/dataset/driving-licence-data (accessed 25 October 2017).

Musselwhite C. (2016) The drive for life: academic challenges older driver safety myths. See: bit.ly/2ldIuMx (accessed 25 October 2017).

RAC. (2016) Report on motoring 2016. See: bit.ly/2yKo1EO (accessed 25 October 2017).

RoSPA. (2012) Social factors in road safety policy paper. See: bit.ly/2gBbmsR (accessed 25 October 2017).


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