Comment: 'We can design more forgiving roads'

Dr Suzy Charman (pictured), executive director of the Road Safety Foundation (RSF), makes the case for safer roads, as well as safer drivers.

‘There’s no such thing as an unsafe road, only unsafe drivers’. Often when we post on social media about our work, we get this reaction from the public. It’s understandable: people see examples of poor driving all around them and it is true that most crashes are caused by human error.

But as highways professionals we can often see where improvements can be made to ensure road layouts are clearer and easier for drivers to use. With our knowledge of crash dynamics, we can design roads to be more forgiving so that if a crash happens, people can walk away from it rather than paying with their lives for their mistake.

Now, after 20 years of measuring, tracking, reporting and campaigning, the business case for safer roads is better understood. Not just by highways professionals, but also by the Department for Transport, Highways England, the Welsh Government, numerous local authorities and importantly, the Treasury.

The Safer Roads Fund

The creation of a £100m fund to address England’s 50 highest risk local authority A roads is a clear sign of this. Its aim was to reduce trauma on 700km of these roads and to help road authorities move towards a safe system proactive treatment of road risk using the International Road Assessment Programme (iRAP) model and tools - now actively used in 100 countries globally.

The iRAP approach provides a star rating, as a guide to the safety of a road, but it is also a rich source of data on the road characteristics that have a relationship with crash likelihood and severity.

Along with star rating scores that reflect individual risk, it indicates where death and serious injury is likely to occur in the future. Known effective countermeasures are triggered in the model and tested to see if they may offer good returns. This approach is particularly useful for road safety impact assessment, meaning that different investment packages and treatment combinations can be assessed for their potential to prevent fatal and serious injury.

It was estimated that 1,450 fatal or serious injuries would be saved over the 20-year life of the measures, ‘saving’ society £550m. The benefit cost ratio associated with the portfolio of routes was calculated at 1:4.4. So for every £1 invested, society would benefit by £4.40, comparing well with other transport investment.

This work also marked a cultural change among local authority practitioners from treating historical known crash cluster sites to using proactive systems for risk management. Over the course of the project, 70 practitioners were trained from around 30 local authorities, and since the Safer Roads Fund work, RSF has continued to work in partnership with many local authorities applying this approach more widely.

Work with national and local authorities

Highways England has been a global pioneer, having undertaken periodic iRAP surveys of their network since 2010, and having set star rating performance indicators to track and stretch their performance. 

The Welsh Government has an iRAP survey of its strategic roads planned this year following a successful pilot on the A40. Numerous local authorities have used the iRAP approach either on networks such as in Solihull and Birmingham City, or on single routes, like a recent survey on the A140 in Norfolk. Kent County Council spotted the opportunity to make the case for investment on the major road network (MRN) where funds made available through Vehicle Excise Duty are being dedicated to major schemes like bypasses.

When road safety improvements pay back so well, these should surely be considered for investment. Several other road authorities are looking at undertaking MRN surveys to prioritise investment across this network where crash risk (number of fatal and serious crashes per billion kilometres travelled) is four times higher than on the strategic road network and where crash density (fatal and serious crashes per km) is 1.5 times higher. Given the importance of the MRN, we really believe that it should be subjected to the same safety performance management as the SRN – and should have iRAP star rating goals to drive improvements in safety and investment in remedial measures.

Dr Suzy Charman will be speaking at Traffex this summer on the subject of road safety software and engineering in conversation with Highways England's chief highways engineer, Mike Wilson. The session will be broadcast on 19 June 2021, at 10:00am until 10:30am.

The Road Safety Foundation is a UK charity advocating road casualty reduction through simultaneous action on all three components of the safe road system: roads, vehicles and behaviour. For more information visit @SafeRoadDesign

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