23 February, 2020

A crash course in Stockholm

3,500 pairs of shoes representing those who die in crashes every day
‘The day the knock on the door came'.

This phrase came up time and again in the three days I spent in Stockholm at a Road Safety Conference. For many at the conference that knock represented the day their lives changed utterly when someone called to their door with the news that one of their loved ones had died in a road crash. For others in attendance giving that news was part of their job description. Every one of the 1,700 people in attendance wanted to reduce the toll. Over a million die every year on the world's roads, and many more suffer life-altering injuries. I was there representing the European Parliament at the Global Network for Road Safety Legislators, and to speak at a session examining how we can use procurement rules to reduce the carnage. The outcome of the Conference - the Stockholm Declaration ties road safety in to the Sustainable Development Goals and will hopefully reduce fatalities and injuries in the coming decade. Hats off to the Swedish Government and the World Health Organisation for bringing us all together.

Road deaths are increasing around the world with increased motorisation. The developing world is struggling to keep up with a flood of new and second-hand vehicles that are often sub-standard. A heart-stopping display of 3,700 pairs of shoes in Stockholm’s Central Railway Station reminded us that this number of lives are lost each day on our roads. Nearby was a display of two pick-up trucks, crashed into each other. They illustrated the disparity between safety standards in Europe and Africa. The new vehicle for sale in South Africa had crumpled, the older European vehicle was relatively intact.

There is some good news. In Europe, deaths have dropped from the staggering level of 75,000 per year in 1990 to around 25,000 per year today. The European Commission have a ‘Vision Zero’ plan that takes its title from a Swedish initiative adopted in 1997 with the principle that ‘life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within the society’. Dr. Matts-Åke Belin developed the Vision Zero Academy to spread the message. He advises road safety bodies on how they can reduce road deaths and injuries. Every September it holds an intensive one-week course to show how this can be achieved. Designing roads for safety over speed helps achieve this, as well as installing barriers to separate lanes of traffic travelling in opposite directions. Such barriers - made from steel or concrete can improve safety by 90% compared to roads without separation. In cities lowering speeds improves safety. Vision Zero works. In Oslo only one person was killed on their roads last year. In Dublin city around ten lives are lost annually, and around twenty in Greater Dublin. We have a lot to learn from our Nordic colleagues.

Of course, it is not just about the road: drivers and vehicles also have a crucial role to play. Young male drivers are particularly vulnerable, and initiatives to work with youth groups on designated driver programs can change hearts and minds, and save lives. Designated driver programmes can lead to less drunk driving. Vehicles are getting safer, thanks to new European laws that mandate air bags, and other safety features such as alerting emergency authorities when sensors indicate that a vehicle has been in a crash. In recent years it seems that ‘distracted driving’ -looking at screens rather than the road is also taking a toll and contributing to a flat-lining of safety improvements in Europe.

At the conference, I met with Barry Sheerman MP, a UK campaigner from Huddersfield and chair of the Global Legislators' Group on roaf safety. When I Googled him to spell his name correctly the first result was ‘Is Barry Sheerman still an MP?’ Well he certainly is! First elected in 1979, he campaigned in 1981 to make seat belt wearing a legal requirement, an initiative that has saved countless lives. However, there is always the danger that benefits of new safety measures are gobbled up by more risk-taking. John Adams, author of ‘Risk’ suggests that one of the best ways to cut down on speeding would be to get rid of seat belts, and place a large spike in the middle of the steering wheel facing the driver! Such a feature might reduce speeds, and save lives, but might be hard to get past lawmakers! I also caught up with Bronwen Thornton from Walk21, an NGO that does sterling work in advocating for walkable communities and improvements in the public realm.

We should not just focus on people inside the vehicles. We need to ensure those outside of the vehicle are protected, and not prevented from going about their daily lives in safety. We shouldn’t have to dress up children up like construction workers in Hi-Viz just so they can walk safely to school. I’d be critical of our own Road Safety Authority for putting too much pressure on pedestrians and cyclists to be ultra-visible, and not placing enough emphasis on reducing dangerous driving and speeding which claim so many lives each year. Being overweight or obese is one of the biggest causes of premature death in Europe, and we need to ensure that people get sufficient exercise and aren’t driven, or drive everywhere. We must ensure active travel such as walking and cycling is normalised, and encouraged:  not seen as an adventure-sport with clothing to match. In the space of a generation, many children have seen their independent spatial mobility dramatically reduced, and it is crucial that we reclaim the street and our roads as a place for all, and not just cars.

It was good to see representatives from Transport Infrastructure Ireland and the Road Safety Authority (RSA) in attendance, I even had a good old argy-bargy about the Galway Ring Road with a senior Department of Transport official who argued that a new road is needed there so that there’s space for a better bus service! I told him that I had been hearing arguments like that since the last century, and quite frankly we needed to move with the times and stop putting investments in public transport on the long finger. I also met Chair of the RSA Liz O’Donnell who told me that the post to replace Moya Murdoch as CEO is currently advertised. Even Acting Minister Ross turned up, and I wished him well in his future endeavours. The main outcome of the Conference was the approval of a StockholmDeclaration on Road Safety. It neatly aligns road safety objectives with the Sustainable Development Goals, and seeks enhanced action.

In my contribution to the Global Legislators Forum, I made five points:

1. Vision Zero has to be at the heart of all we do. We need more good laws at a European level, and I received a useful briefing on this from Elizabeth Werner who works in the European Commission. We need to ensure consistency on driver licenses across the EU; more measures on cross-border enforcement (that speeding ticket you got in Italy!), and move forward with the Infrastructure Safety Management Directive which will audit major roads to ensure that pedestrians and cyclists, as well as motorists are safe.

2. We need smarter vehicles. By smart I don't simply mean more electronic wizardry. Sometimes it means getting rid of SUVs in cities whose bonnets are higher than a child’s head. It can also mean phasing out polluting vehicles whose manufacturers lied to us about emissions, and which contribute to premature deaths from air pollution. Autonomous vehicles may help, but many at the Conference argued that they should be required to sit a driving test! Some expressed concern at the rise of eScooters and other microbility solutions. Others suggested that they might put pressure on local authorities to make roads safer for all.

3. Travelling less can also play a role. That can mean working from home one day a week. It can also mean mixed-use planning so that people do not have to travel long distances for work, or if they do ensuring that there is public transport and active travel options available. Getting around by bus and rail are so much safer than driving, and putting in place SUMPs (Sustainable Mobility Plans) can help make this happen.

4. Safe speeds are crucial. Rod King, the guru behind ‘20’s Plenty’ was at the conference. He is a passionate advocate for 20 mph speed limits in residential areas in the UK, and 30 km/h limits in other countries. Lower speeds save lives, and in Ireland many if not most drivers in areas with low speed limits break the law. An Garda Síochána needs to treat speeding seriously. If similar numbers died due to Gangland crime Governments would fall. Some Government enthusiasm for speed enforcement using traffic cameras would also be useful. Hopefully Intelligence Speed Assistance will help in the years to come. We also need to reduce speed limits from 50 km/h to 40 km/h on urban arterial roads, and consider 20 km/h limits where children may be present in significant numbers. I have even seen 10 km/h speed limits on public roads in German cities beside children’s playgrounds. Sounds good to me.

5. My last plea was for less victim blaming. All too often, we allow statements like ‘I couldn’t see you’ or ‘The sun was in my eyes’ go unchallenged. We need to remember the title of Ralph Nader’s book ‘Unsafe at any speed’ and take more decisive action to make our roads safer. Mayer Hillman, one of my heroes co-authored a report ‘One False Move’ that took its title from a UK government pamphlet that seemed to shift blame to young pedestrians for bad driving by others. Another co-author John Whitelegg was also there, and we swopped notes.

In a session entitled ‘Producing and Consuming Responsibly’, I spoke about the rule of the European Union saving lives on our roads. We can do this by incentivising modal shift to combined mobility and public transport. Recent Commission guidance on Green Public Procurement mentions other initiatives such as promoting the use of speed limiters in vehicles. Prioritising measures such as these in procurement can save lives.  The EU needs to take a more active role in pushing for a whole systems approach that would tackle road safety along with promoting mode shifts, active travel, and improving air quality.

What did I learn from the Conference? Governments must redouble their efforts to reduce speeds on our roads. We should (with thanks to Teresa Mannion) avoid unnecessary journeys. Where possible, prioritise buses and trains over cars. We must normalise and encourage walking and cycling as the benefits go far beyond road safety. At a European Union level we must stop exporting second-rate vehicles to the rest of the world.  Finally we must strive for the Vision Zero approach pioneered in Sweden, and embed this into all our thinking.

I have no doubt that if we do this properly, we would have more people leading safer, and healthier longer lives, and a reduction in carbon emissions as well. What’s not to like!