Sad graph, happy trend. I’ve produced some rather morbid graphs recently, but at least this one has a happy trend. It shows the number of reported casualties from road accidents over the past 30-odd years. There were a total of 334,513 in 1979, yet only 194,477 last year. That’s a decline of 42 per cent.
The 72-percenters. This trend is even happier if you reduce it to its constituent parts. The two worst types of casualty – serious injuries and deaths – have both reduced by 72 per cent over the same period. There were 6,352 people killed in reported road accidents in 1979. The figure for last year was 1,775.
Advance and retreat. The astonishing thing about these declines is that they’ve happened despite a 91 per cent increase in the number of vehicles on Britain’s roads. How so? Various advances will explain a lot of it: in the education of new drivers, in the engineering of cars and roads, in the treatment given to accident victims, and so on. But a form of retreat may also be responsible: according to some studies, recessions help to reduce the number of road casualties by reducing the amount of activity on the roads.
The vulnerability index. But whose activity is it? Most of last year’s casualties – 115,530 of the 194,477, in fact – were among what the Department for Transport calls “car occupants”. But that’s largely because these car occupants are in a majority on the tarmac. If you express the figures in terms of the distance travelled, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists come out as the most vulnerable groups. Cyclists, for instance, suffered 6,588 casualties per billion passenger miles travelled last year. For those in cars, it was 286.
An even happier future? Almost all of these casualties will have been the result of human error, whether it’s brought on drinking, tiredness or just plain old stupidity. Which raises the question of what would happen if humans were removed from behind steering wheels. The advent of driverless cars is “going to alter war and… alter peace,” as Eugene Morgan says of the old-fashioned automobile in The Magnificent Ambersons. Google’s model has so far covered over 1.7 million miles. No casualties.