It’s time to make Irish roads even safer

Road safety strategies may reduce deaths, but injury numbers are too high, says EU commissioner Siim Kallas.

TRAVELLING on Irish and European roads has become far less of a life-threatening prospect over the last decade.

The latest European figures show 9% fewer people were killed in road accidents in 2012 than in the previous year. Overall, 2012 marks the lowest number of European road deaths since data began to be collected. But even one death is a death too many.

Ireland’s annual improvement rate in reducing road deaths is impressive — these have fallen by 12% a year for two years in a row, which is significantly higher than the EU average.

For the second year running, Ireland ranks among the top five EU countries with the lowest number of road deaths. Last year, Ireland reported 164 deaths, or 36 per million inhabitants. That compares with 55 road deaths per million as the EU-wide average for 2012.

Overall, Europe’s road safety strategy is working. In 2001, an average of 112 people out of every million died in road accidents in the EU. By 2012, the rate was down to half that. But there is no room for complacency when it comes to road safety. We need to intensify efforts to keep moving towards our “zero vision” for European road deaths by 2050 and to halve casualties by 2020.

Most importantly, now is the time for Ireland and Europe to break new ground — by adding to the existing targets for reducing road deaths with strategic and similar targets for serious road injuries.

Road safety strategies have traditionally focused on reducing deaths. Injuries are often overlooked. For every person killed in a crash, there are an estimated four life-long disabled, 10 serious, and 40 slight injuries that occur mostly inside built-up areas. Injury numbers are still unacceptably high and not falling at nearly the same rate as road deaths. Estimates show that almost 1.5m people were injured in 2010, of whom 250,000 sustained serious bodily harm. That compares with 28,000 deaths reported on EU roads for 2012.

Cars can collide in just a second, whatever the reason. But the consequences for the victims can stretch over many years, particularly with serious injuries, the most common of which are to the head and brain, and then to the legs and spine. Many of those injured become permanently disabled.

The socio-economic costs are also very high. With costs of medical treatment, loss of workforce members and the extra financial burden placed on insurance, legal, and social support systems, the EU’s road injuries give rise to a combined annual bill of around 2% of GDP — or €250bn for 2012. This is too high a price to pay.

But these details of serious injuries and their associated costs are only estimates. The real figures are likely to be much higher because of substantial misreporting and underreporting. It is also nearly impossible to compare data across Europe. When they do exist, national figures vary widely — and many different views prevail on what constitutes a road injury. Some EU countries use medical classifications; others use long-term effects of the injury, the length of hospitalisation or extent of trauma suffered.

These differences mean that we cannot really understand the magnitude and nature of the problem. Europe needs some common definitions of road injuries so we can design a better strategy to deal with them.

Common injury definitions are a key part of the European Commission’s proposed strategy for preventing road deaths, injuries, and reducing accident severity. They are also needed to help set European and national reduction targets. For this, members can use a globally recognised scale of trauma severity that already exists: The Maximum Abbreviated Injury Scale (MAIS).

By 2014, Ireland and its European partners should be able to collect comparable, reliable, and relevant data using MAIS definitions, with the commission assisting with changes that may be needed. That year will become a baseline for monitoring trends and improvements, allowing an EU-wide target for reducing serious injuries to be set up to 2020.

Since the start of the millennium, we have made good progress in reducing road fatalities. Ireland has emerged as a leader in improving road safety. It can now put itself at the forefront of the battle to reduce injuries, making the roads safer for everyone.

* Siim Kallas is EU transport commissioner.

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