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Never mind the football, here’s something that we should all celebrate: in Britain, motorists kill fewer people than in just about any other country in the world. According to the OECD’s Road Traffic and Accident Database, the latest figures show there were 28 fatalities per million people in the UK, compared to 44 in Germany, 58 in France, 60 in Italy and 91 in Greece.

Every death or injury on the roads is one too many, but we should be proud of the progress we’ve made in saving lives.

What we shouldn’t do, however, is indulge in any nonsense about the law-abiding and mild-mannered nature of the English-speaking peoples. For proof of that, just compare our record to the other nations of the ‘Anglosphere’. In the US, road fatalities stand at 107 per million people, which is worse than Greece. For New Zealand the figure is 69, for Austrialia 57 and in Canada – nice, level-headed Canada – it is 58.

In an article for the Canadian journal Maclean’s, Brian Bethune wonders why his country should be doing so badly in comparison to others. Is it just a matter of geography?

“Driving in North America might seem to have more challenges than in European nations. The weather is frequently severe and the distances are long—many Canadian fatalities occur on rural highways.”

That seems a reasonable hypothesis, but why are road deaths in Sweden – another northerly, sparsely populated country – only half the Canadian level?

“Sweden too has rough winters; what’s more, densely populated countries like EU members and Japan have more equally deadly points of pedestrian-vehicle interaction. Even measurements that should powerfully favour the U.S. and Canada, such as deaths per billions of kilometres driven, do not put us among the best performers.”

The terrible truth is that, to a large extent, each country chooses how many people will die on its roads. And, in this respect, some countries are more tolerant than others:

“Canadians accept that accidents, often gruesome in their effects, will happen, that cars and trucks will exact a certain amount of collateral damage for the personal and economic freedom they offer. And so they have: 28,000 dead and 186,000 drivers, passengers, pedestrians and cyclists hospitalized in Canada during the decade 1999 to 2008 (the last we have full data for). They’re part of a worldwide automotive toll that now runs at about 1.2 million deaths and 50 million injuries annually.”

Life-saving measures needn’t be expensive:

“Speed limits have steadily decreased in European residential areas, and are now most often set at 30 km/h. A reduction to that speed from 50 km/h, common in Canadian cities, would pay huge dividends here, Arason says. A pedestrian is five to eight times more likely to be killed when struck at 50 km/h than at 30, and he or she is also less likely to be hit at all when traffic is slowed, since people have more time to jump out of the way while cars require less time and distance to stop.”

Of course, there are those who regard any road safety measure, however innocuous, as an intolerable assault on individual liberty. Arguably, the speed cameras, seat belt laws and traffic calming measures that we’re used to in Britain do add up to a significant constraint on the ‘freedom of the road’. But then, again, there are thousands of our fellow countrymen, who might otherwise have been killed or maimed, enjoying the freedoms that life itself has to offer: what you lose on the swings, you gain on the roundabouts.

On the subject of roundabouts, it’s worth noting that not all road safety improvements are about nannying the motorist:

“Like many European countries have, Canada should convert traffic signal-controlled intersections to roundabouts wherever practicable. Drivers tend to hate roundabouts for the same reason the traffic circles work to reduce deaths and serious injuries: they force driver alertness. Motorists understand intuitively that they must be on the lookout and make decisions.”

They’ve been late coming to North America, but the modern roundabout was pioneered in Britain – another reason to be proud of our remarkable country.

18 comments for: Britain’s record on road safety should be a source of national pride

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