Making roads speak for themselves

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Series Details 07.02.08
Publication Date 07/02/2008
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Roads that are easier for drivers to understand could help to cut the number of accidents. Jennifer Rankin reports.

"Everyday human driving errors should not be punished by a death sentence," says John Dawson, chairman of the European Road Assessment Programme (Eurorap). Eurorap is an international organisation dedicated to improving road design, an aspect of road safety that was overlooked for many years by policymakers who focused their efforts on changing driver behaviour.

But while many road deaths result from irresponsible behaviour - drink-driving or speeding - and are amenable to action to change behaviour, many others are caused by a moment’s lapse in concentration or a simple mistake. It is for the sake of these that policymakers are increasingly concerned with road design. Planners talk of ‘forgiving roads’, where hairpin bends are well-marked and blackspots minimised. The Netherlands refers to its road-design work as the pursuit of the ‘self-explaining road’.

The UK, the Netherlands and Sweden have been frontrunners in designing safer roads. In these countries, where traffic law is fairly well respected, making improvements to road design is expected to generate the biggest savings in lives compared to improving vehicles or changing driver behaviour. For example, Eurorap cites a study on Sweden, where 59% of the gains in accidents averted are expected to come from road design, compared to 20% from safer vehicles and 15% from better driver behaviour.

The European Commission’s proposal for a directive on road infrastructure is currently working its way through the EU’s legislative machine (see Page 16). It would compel all countries to have a system of safety inspections to assess dangerous stretches of road. Although it is likely to be limited to the Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T roads) it could have a knock-on effect on other roads. A 2004 directive that set minimum standards for tunnel safety applies only to the TEN-T network, but its reach has spread far wider, as countries have applied it to other tunnels.

As more countries undertake inspections at crash sites, Europe’s planners will have more data, which will help them to understand the causes of accidents. One of the Commission’s next big plans is to collect more information about road accidents. Currently, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and France contribute data from their accident investigations to DaCoTA (data collection transfer and analysis), but there is not enough information to provide a critical mass of data to draw meaningful conclusions.

The Commission’s transport and energy directorate-general wants to set up a €50 million pilot project for 2010-15 to develop DaCoTA and hopes to get funding from DG Research. In the last funding round, DaCoTA lost out to the politically weighty Galileo satellite project, but transport officials are hopeful for the next round of funding. "It’s something significant and no country can do it alone because they cannot generate the critical mass of data," says one Commission official. The pilot project would cost €10 million a year, but an official estimated that it would save about ten lives per year.

Roads that are easier for drivers to understand could help to cut the number of accidents. Jennifer Rankin reports.

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