Getting to the Root Causes of Road Crashes

The news that yet another person has died in a road crash makes for grim but depressingly-frequent reading in the press.

We are reassured that our national road safety record stands up well to global comparison. In international terms we have much to be proud of in achieving massive improvements over the thirty years since I worked in the Department of Transport for the then roads minister Peter Bottomley in the late 1980s.

Of course the problem is that being relatively successful masks an uncomfortable truth – a toll of 1,792 dead and 24,101 seriously injured people in 2016. Living in a relatively successful country is scant comfort to the families and friends caught up in the physical and emotional trauma of bereavement and of loved-ones suffering life-changing injuries.

Can we comfort ourselves that we are at least on the right, downward, trajectory? Unfortunately it appears not. Since 2010 the annual number of casualties has remained stubbornly constant.

So where do we go from here? Maybe we just need to hold tight in the expectation that autonomous vehicles will, eventually, solve the issue for us, taking the away the single biggest contributory factor in road accidents – human error. But for all the hype about the driverless revolution just around the corner it bears remembering that we have somewhere north of thirty million 'traditional' cars registered for use on our roads. Even if the fully driverless option was available in showrooms now, we are looking at many years of transition.

Surely, then, this is one area where the old staple of investment appraisal – the 'do-nothing' option – has no place. We need a 'do-something', and while a relentless focus on the three E's of education, enforcement and engineering have served us pretty well so far, to get back on track we can't just rely on doing more of the same.

That's why I find myself, thirty years on, once again supporting Peter, now Sir Peter, Bottomley, this time in the call he made for improved accident investigation, in the Transport Safety Commission's 2015 report. Sir Peter's findings with co-commissioner Professor Stephen Glaister shone an unfavourable spotlight on the differences in accident investigation practices across different transport modes - unfavourable in respect of road accidents. But that spotlight also revealed an opportunity waiting to be seized.

It is one thing for a police-led investigation to analyse events and apportion blame. What we need beyond that is the form of investigation common to other modes where the imperative is to explore the root and systemic causes of crashes. Where to begin? The numbers are daunting and for that reason alone the models provided by the air, rail and maritime accident investigation branches are unlikely to provide a practical operational template when applied to the roads.

That's why we're proposing the piloting of different options, building on the analytical foundations of the other branches – where the task is to concentrate on cause rather than blame – but to focus not just on individual crashes but on the wealth of data available that could reveal patterns of causation. The challenge of how to weave root-cause investigation around police processes, criminal proceedings and data protection rules shouldn't be regarded as an insurmountable barrier to progress but as one of many aspects of accident investigation that pilot schemes could unpack and resolve.

Different pilots could explore different aspects of accident investigation.

The creation of a dedicated analytical unit within the Department for Transport (DfT) should be relatively quick and easy to set up, and whilst not being independent nor having the resource to conduct individual investigations could still compile, collate and analyse the huge amount of information already collected.

If DfT provided some modest seedcorn funding it would be possible to envisage a local or regional pilot involving one or more highway authorities and their associated police constabularies acting together on a voluntary basis. Not a model that would reveal the bigger, national picture, but still able to work through how to manage the tangle of civil and criminal liabilities.

And then there's the option of Highways England establishing a unit, directly funded but operating at arm's length, to focus on the strategic road network. Highways England's network is not the riskiest in road safety terms, but when things do go wrong both the safety and the economic impacts can be severe – high-speed crashes involving the heaviest vehicles often with damage to carriageways and hours of frustrating tailbacks.

There comes a time in any long-running debate when an idea either runs out of steam or finally begins to gain traction. We believe that moment is near on the argument for developing a better way to investigate the causes of road crashes, and so we add the Foundation's voice to those of the Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety and other safety organisations, and to Sir Peter Bottomley's, for this fresh 'do-something' option – an idea whose time has surely come.