Road Safety – A Sustainable Development Own Goal for the UK?

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Reducing road accident deaths is one of the UN's early Sustainable Development Goals, with a target date of 2020. Is the UK on course to meet its commitments?

Reducing road accident deaths is one of the UN’s early Sustainable Development Goals, with a target date of 2020. Is the UK on course to meet its commitments?

Most of the Goals and Targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are directed towards 2030. But a few, including road safety, have targets set at 2020 for the delivery of meaningful improvements.

Target 3.6 is that “By 2020, halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents“. We’re now two years on from the time the commitment was made. How are we doing so far?

Road deaths are the consequence of unplanned catastrophic encounters between people and vehicles. Fig 1 normalises road deaths for both GB population and number of licensed vehicles.

Figure 1: Great Britain – road traffic accident deaths per 100,000 population per 100,000 vehicles

This graph reveals the significant improvement in road deaths rate per head of population per number of licensed vehicle since 1945, despite the post-war surge in vehicle ownership. Since 1945, there has been, by and large, steady systemic improvement in reducing the rate of those unplanned catastrophic encounters between people and vehicles.

Slowdown in improvement

The period that defies the steady improvement trend since 1930 is the sudden surge between 1939 and 1945 – a reflection of wartime emergency measures.

Let’s look more closely at recent years, and return to the metric of absolute numbers. The rate of improvement in recent years is less impressive. GB road safety performance has plateaued since 2010. (Fig 2). 2016 was our worst year for road deaths since 2011.

Fig 2 also projects forward to 2020. It’s clear that a sharp improvement on 2010-16 trended performance is required if we are to meet the SDG target.

Figure 2: Great Britain – annual road traffic accident deaths 2000-16 and targets for 2020

The House of Commons International Development Committee said in June 2016: “We are particularly concerned that the SDGs have not been included in the 2015–2020 Single Departmental Plans of all government departments, which indicates a worrying lack of engagement in the SDGs across Government. Departments should be assigned specific responsibilities for making progress on the SDGs to ensure ownership and clear lines of accountability and these should be laid out clearly in each department’s Single Departmental Plan, with specific references to relevant SDGs” . Has DfT incorporated any targets into its forward plan? It seems not, although in 2010, the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC), which has UK-based members including the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, and Transport Scotland, set a target of reducing road deaths by 50% from 2010 to 2020 . This target is marginally less stretching than the SDG Target. Both targets already look “challenging”.

From OECD data, UK road safety death rate per inhabitant has been consistently better than the other G7 countries between 1994 and 2015 (Fig 3), although the performance gap has narrowed.

Figure 3: G7 Countries – road deaths 1994 to 2015

The slowdown in improvement since 2010 is evident for the UK and USA, somewhat less so in other G7 countries. Performance since 2010 gives little comfort that the SDG Target will be achieved by the world’s seven largest advanced economies. The data suggest that just carrying on as we are, will fail.

Can we still hit the SDG target, or even the ETSC target? Perhaps, but only with a strong commitment to succeed and acceptance of the moral, social and economic importance of reducing avoidable deaths on a large scale, which in turn requires inspired leadership from industry and policy-makers. Improvement rates of the order required were achieved in the UK and USA between 2006 and 2009, so it’s not a forlorn hope. But on recent trends, without a sudden, step-change improvement, this might be our first Sustainable Development Own Goal.

Further reading

Read the full briefing note: Road Safety SDG 3.2 [PDF]

Gordon Masterton

Prof Gordon Masterton
Chair of Future Infrastructure, University of Edinburgh

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