What are the best ways to improve road safety?
Roadways can be dangerous, both for drivers and for pedestrians. In the United States alone, 38,800 people lost their lives to car crashes in 2019. And it’s estimated that worldwide, more than 1.35 million people are killed on roadways every year.
Some of these deaths are practically unavoidable; accidents happen, and roadways are inherently risky. But what measures can we take to improve road safety? And how good of a job are we actually doing?
Laws, licenses, and regulations
First, it’s important to have laws, licenses, and regulations in place to control driver behavior, ultimately keeping roads safer. Most developed countries require drivers to have a license before they can operate a motor vehicle on the road; to obtain this license, they must undergo some combination of written testing and driving evaluations.
Additionally, many countries have stricter requirements for drivers operating commercial vehicles. For example, the Commercial Vehicle Inspection Program (CVIP) is a safety inspection program that ensures commercial vehicles are safe and fit for road operation.
Other laws are designed to change how people behave on the road directly. For example, basic additions like traffic lights, speed limits, and stop signs can dramatically increase the safety of all people on the road—assuming those laws are followed. Research demonstrates that even subtle changes, like reducing the speed limit by 10 mph or installing a new traffic light, can have a drastic impact on local fatality rates.
These laws also require consistent enforcement. If people feel like they can get away with speeding, they’re going to speed. If they can run a red light with no repercussions, they’ll run a red light. Accordingly, countries with lower fatality rates tend to be those with a solid set of laws and the means to enforce those laws.
Laws and regulations aren’t the only way to improve road safety, of course. We can also improve safety by improving the designs of roadways. Ideally, these designs will make it hard, if not impossible, to operate irresponsibly, and will provide safeguards to vehicles that are in danger.
A simple example of this is a guardrail on a highway or other busy street. If your vehicle drifts off the road, the guardrail may provide enough resistance to guide it back to the road, rather than allowing it to run into a tree or off a cliff. Runoff ramps, walls, and other protective measures provide an ample measure of security as well.
Design is especially important for pedestrians, who are much more vulnerable than the drivers and passengers of vehicles. With the right design, pedestrians can feel safe crossing at a designated crosswalk, and remain protected while they’re on the sidewalk or another walkway.
Of course, roadway design decisions can also have subtle influences—and sometimes, counterintuitive ones. For example, many people instinctively believe that wider roads are safer, since they afford vehicles more room and a greater margin of error. However, research shows us that narrower traffic lanes have lower road fatality rates. Why? Because narrower roads force drivers to pay more attention to their surroundings and drive slower. It may be annoying if you’re behind the wheel, but it could save lives.
Culture and behavior
We also can’t overstate the importance of culture and societal beliefs on road safety. When a person understands that driving a vehicle is an important responsibility, and that human beings are fragile, they’re much more likely to obey the rules of the road and drive safely. When a person feels like they’re a perfect driver who can disregard safety recommendations because they’re so impressively skilled, they’re likely to drive recklessly and put other people in jeopardy.
Unfortunately, this is the hardest element of roadway safety to master. Despite decades of drunk driving awareness campaigns and increased enforcement all over the world, drunk driving remains a major problem—and one of the leading causes of preventable traffic accidents even in developed countries. Despite ample weather forecasts and warnings, millions of people end up in car accidents due to snowy or foggy weather because they didn’t take the proper precautions.
The saddest part is that the most effective changes here are often the simplest. Avoiding driving while tired or under the influence, driving slower and with greater following distance, and remaining alert and focused while driving are all it would take to drastically reduce roadway fatality rates.
These aren’t the only ways to improve roadway safety—for example, we didn’t even touch on the importance of vehicle design, or how better medical technology and responsiveness can save more lives—but they are some of the most important. Together, we’ll have to keep pressing for further advancements so eventually we can reduce that 1.35 million fatality figure to just a few thousand.
Story by Darren Wilson