Road deaths are century's great waste


The controversy this week about the state of our railway tracks is a useful reminder to ourselves about our attitude to risk and danger. So far, our railways have caused few deaths, but as advertisers have to say in financial services, past performance is not a guide to future performance. Let us remind ourselves again about road deaths, by way of contrast. Last year, there were 462 deaths caused by road accidents. Remember the catastrophic train crash that killed more than 100 in Germany? Can you imagine us tolerating four train crashes of that magnitude with the level of tolerance we have for road deaths? Would we tolerate such ruin from the use or abuse of everyday appliances like computers?

Yes, there are differences between road deaths and fatal train accidents. We think of putting our lives into the hands of others when we get on a train or an aircraft. It will be someone else's fault if I am killed. Many road deaths are caused to drivers by drivers themselves. In 1997, 29 per cent of road fatalities were the result of single-vehicle accidents. But 30 per cent were pedestrian deaths. Some of those were the pedestrian's fault, but only a small minority. The Garda says the driver was a contributory factor in 78 per cent of fatalities, and pedestrians in 13 per cent. What actions caused the accidents? Going to the wrong side of the road, 32 per cent; exceeding safe speed, 25 per cent; improper overtaking, 10 per cent. The majority of road deaths represent a wrong done by someone else.

We are appalled, yet we tolerate a lot of it. What would we pay to avoid road deaths? I wonder how many people would agree with a cost per death of £880,000 (#1,117,370), and £10,500 per serious injury. This is the way the National Road Authority makes an estimate of the economic cost of all those catastrophes on the roads. It is based on a "willingness-to-pay principle", which means that it is the best estimate of what the public would pay to avoid deaths and injuries.

A national strategy for road safety was introduced last year with the aim of cutting road deaths and injuries by 20 per cent of the 1997 figure at the end of 2002. The cost of the panoply of measures to save 96 lives (perhaps you and I among them) and about 400 serious injuries in that year, was not estimated, as it is rather complex. A stab was made at the benefit - roughly £171 million related to road deaths avoided over the period to the end of 2002 and £93 million for avoided injuries, to give a total of £264 million. The Department of the Environment assures us that the benefits outweigh the costs. So we are willing to pay anything up to about £260 million for reduction of a fifth in deaths and injuries in four years. Perhaps £1 billion to eliminate most risk, in theory. Is that all?

The National Road Authority estimates that increasing the length of motorways from 70 km to 240 km and dual carriageways from 174 km to 750 km by 2019 would cost £6.1 billion. The statistics show that divided roads are much safer, yet even this would not eliminate risk by any means.

The road strategy quotes a survey which stated that the Irish public had the highest percentage among 15 EU countries (78 per cent) of people who are "very concerned" about road accidents. Nice sentiments, but it is not the thought that counts.

Every country seems to put up with road deaths, while aiming for lower levels of accidents per number of cars or per million kilometres travelled. Our fatalities have fallen from a massive 630 in 1978 to 463 in 1988 and 462 last year. Our performance against millions of kilometres travelled by car is improving. In the EU league table by this measure, we are actually below average.

In 50 years time, will we still travel by private motorised vehicles at 60 mph along some roads designed for Model T Fords and horses and carts? Will we still tolerate hundreds of deaths annually on the roads? Will anything radical have been done, such as introducing more rail transport, dividing most roads, limiting car speeds, making more roads one-way and so on? Or will our behaviour simply have changed for the better?

Road deaths, rather than rail or air crashes, have got to be one of the greatest wastes of life of the 20th century. But don't count on this figuring in upcoming retrospectives of the 20th century. It is just the culling of our generation.

Oliver O'Connor is an investment funds specialist

(# - Euro)