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      • Published 17 Jan 2023
      • Last Modified 29 Aug 2023
    • 17 min

    A Practical Guide to Road Safety

    Road safety impacts everyone. This guide provides practical tips for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists to stay safe and keep others safe on the road.

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    Scale of Road Safety Problem

    In considering the issue of road safety, it’s important to remember that it impacts on everybody: in one way or another, everyone is a road user.

    Today, 90 per cent of all global transport goes via roads, and safety remains one of the key priorities pushing daily progress in vehicle technology, urban design and driving law.

    Historical Overview

    Motorisation and vehicle ownership rates initially exploded during the 1950s, but it would be another 25 years before the modern era of elevated driving safety concerns truly arrived.

    The early 1970s saw annual road death statistics climb to a staggering all-time high, with traffic accidents claiming more than 1 life for every 3000 people in developed nations.

    Extensive worldwide studies conducted throughout the mid-1970s and early 1980s revealed that four key behaviours were accountable for a huge majority of fatalities on our highways and byways:

    • Failure to use seat belts
    • Failure to use crash helmets
    • Driving under the influence of alcohol
    • Speeding

    Thanks to new legislation introduced in response to these findings, the plunge in road traffic death rates over the ensuing decade was dramatic: by 1990, they had dipped below levels recorded at the beginning of the first vehicle ownership boom 30 years earlier.

    However, a second wave of global motorisation has significantly increased the volume of traffic – particularly of larger and fleet vehicles – on the world’s roads in recent years, and safety has once again become a major priority.

    Current Context

    2004’s World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention, produced jointly by the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO), found that more than 3000 men, women and children are dying every day – up to as many as 1.24 million each year – in road accidents.

    Road crashes are the leading cause of death among children, as well as among women and men aged 15-29 in all nations except those worst affected by HIV/AIDS.

    The WHO report predicted that, worldwide, traffic accident fatality rates would increase by 60 per cent by 2020 as rates of vehicle ownership in less-developed countries continue to climb rapidly. If something isn’t done, road accidents are likely to be the 7th leading cause of all human deaths by 2030.

    A UN Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011–2020 was announced, aiming at ambitious global targets as part of a plan to reduce fatalities in road traffic accidents.

    The WHO report also concluded that higher accident rates are not an inevitable consequence of economic growth:

    • By reducing the economic and social impact of traffic deaths, investment in increased traffic safety management has proven to be quickly recoverable and ultimately profitable for most public authorities
    • Despite this, the economic burden of poor road safety remains significant, accounting for between 1% and 7% of GDP in many nations

    As a proportion of the overall accident rates within the entire road traffic system, vehicle problems have been identified as a factor around 5-10% of the time, with road infrastructure thought to be partly accountable in roughly 10-20% of cases. Human error, by contrast, is responsible for 80-90%.

    Road Safety Measures You Can Take

    As a Driver

    • Avoid driving when fatigued wherever possible, particularly at times when you would normally be asleep
    • Avoid alcohol completely when driving. Plan ahead if you think you’re likely to want a drink, and make other arrangements for getting there and back:
      • While there is a set legal blood alcohol limit, it’s very difficult to predict how quickly individuals will reach it
      • Size, weight, age, gender and metabolism are all variable factors in how quickly our bodies process alcohol
      • These factors will in turn greatly affect different peoples’ blood alcohol readings after the same amount of drink
    • Similarly, be sure to plan ahead for longer journeys, and get a good night’s sleep before setting off:
      • Never embark on long drives when already tired
      • Always carry refreshments with you (ideally water, tea or coffee, and a snack) to help keep you alert
    • Be aware that certain medications can cause excessive drowsiness, particularly when combined with even very small measures of alcohol:
      • Consult your doctor or pharmacist for more information about the suitability of new medications for drivers
      • If in doubt, avoid taking the wheel until you’ve made sure
    • Slow down. Obey speed limits at all times:
      • Remember that they’re a limit, not a target speed!
      • If you feel pressured by other road users to drive faster than the stated speed limit, the best policy is to pull over and allow them to pass
      • If you’re unsure of the speed limit in a particular area, it’s usually safe to assume that the presence of lampposts indicates a 30pmh zone
    • Avoid driving at peak times if you’re not as confident in heavy traffic
    • Don’t rely solely on mirrors when changing lanes or joining a flow of moving traffic from a side street:
      • Blind spots are worsened when only using the rear and side mirrors to see around the car
      • It’s important to turn and physically look in the direction of oncoming traffic before making any manoeuvres
    • Use daytime running lights wherever possible, as they’ve been shown to significantly reduce the risk of daylight collisions, particularly for less colourful vehicles on dull days
    • Never tailgate other drivers:
      • Always keep a minimum two-second gap (at your current speed) between you and the car in front
      • Double this when driving in the rain, fog, and other inclement conditions, and at night
    • Consider taking a defensive driving course, which can:
      • Improve your on-road competencies
      • Teach you to better recognise threats and hazards before they cause an accident
      • Sharpen your ability to react appropriately in the event of an incident (when timing can be crucial)
    • Keep yourself up to date with the latest additions and amendments to road rules and driver laws. They change frequently, and ignorance is not a valid defence
    • Never use a mobile/cell phone while driving:
      • In most countries it’s now illegal; in all countries, it’s a growing cause of severe injury and fatality
      • Hands-free kits, contrary to popular assumption, don’t do anything to significantly improve your ability to concentrate on the road while talking
    • When driving near motorcyclists:
      • Allow motorbikes a full lane of travel
      • Take extra care to check for their rapid approach at junctions and intersections, or when changing lanes; they’re much easier to miss in a blind spot
      • Remember, too, that most motorbike turn signals are not self-cancelling, so they’re easy to leave on accidentally
      • Be certain that you know what a motorbike rider is doing before you take up a road position in response
    • Make sure all passengers are wearing seatbelts before setting off, even for short journeys

    A Word on Seatbelts

    Seatbelts are proven lifesavers:

    • On average, they reduce the risk of being killed in a road accident by around 45%
    • They also reduce the chances of being ejected from the vehicle in a crash – one of the key contributors to death in traffic collisions – by 99%
    • In most Western nations, wearing seatbelts is a legal requirement for all occupants of a vehicle, not just the driver
    • However, it’s the driver’s responsibility to ensure this is observed
    • Securing children properly with seatbelts has an enormous impact in terms of reducing child fatalities (impact forces in traffic collisions can be considerably higher on smaller people when not secured by seatbelts)
    • Combine seatbelts with a properly installed booster or safety seat that’s appropriately designated for their age or size
    • Sharing seatbelts, or riding with children on your lap, dramatically increases the child’s chance of severe injury or death in the event of an accident

    As a Vehicle Owner/Operator

    • Ensure your car is in a roadworthy condition before setting off on a journey:
      • Check headlights, brake and reverse lights
      • Fuel and oil gauges
      • Tyre pressure and tyre tread
      • Exhaust fixings
      • Windscreen condition
      • Mirror placement
      • All electrical signals such as indicators and hazard lights are in good working order
    • Keep up with basic vehicle maintenance tasks such as:
      • Checking tyres for air pressure
      • Ensuring oil, coolants and windscreen wash are topped up
      • Replacing windscreen wiper blades every 1-2 years
    • Ensure you’re carrying all necessary documentation for the car you’re driving, including insurance documents and proof of a valid vehicle inspection certificate (such as an MOT)
    • Carry a basic road safety kit with you in the car at all times. As a bare minimum, this should include:
      • Spare fuel
      • A spare tyre and a means to change it
      • Something to clean or scrape windscreens with
      • A reflective hazard warning triangle
      • Ideally, it will also include tyre pressure and tread gauges, a fire extinguisher, a torch, work gloves, an emergency glass hammer, and some simple first-aid equipment
    • In the event of a breakdown:
      • Turn on your hazard lights immediately to alert other road users to a problem
      • Try to get the vehicle to a safe place away from oncoming traffic
      • If this is impossible, remain in the car with your seatbelt securely fastened
      • Never leave the vehicle to stand at the side of the road, or to attempt repairs in the flow of traffic

    As a Pedestrian

    • Only ever cross roads at designated pedestrian crossing points such as traffic lights, zebra crossings and overpasses, even if it appears traffic is quiet. Avoid crossing near corners or at the crest of hills
    • Never cross from between parked vehicles or other obstructions:
      • Ensure you can see the entirety of any cars on the road nearby
      • If you can’t, then there’s a good chance they can’t see you
      • An effective way to check this is to ensure you can make eye contact with any drivers around you
    • Remain on the kerbside at crossing points until all traffic has come to a complete stop, particularly if it’s a larger vehicle such as a truck or bus
    • Cross roads as briskly as possible, but at a steady pace. Never run. Keep a lookout while crossing for any other cars approaching from either side
    • Pedestrian crossings with islands midway across are effectively two separate crossings, so don’t treat them as a single unbroken one
    • Remember that traffic lights are signals for drivers, not pedestrians:
      • You’ve no control over who will obey them and who won’t
      • Pedestrians must only move in response to the behaviour of traffic, rather than following what the lights say
    • Wear bright or light-coloured clothing if you’re going to be walking near busy roads, particularly if the light isn’t great
    • At night, wear a reflective safety accessory to ensure you’re visible at the roadside to any oncoming vehicles
    • If you’re on a section of roadway that doesn’t have any pavement, the safest option is always to walk facing oncoming traffic. Avoid walking on roads where traffic can approach from behind you
    • Never cross roads while listening to music or talking on the phone
    • Never attempt to cross busy roads while intoxicated, just as is the case for drivers: peripheral vision, depth perception and ability to judge traffic speeds are all dramatically affected by alcohol in the bloodstream

    As a Cyclist

    • Always use any available bike lanes if they allow you to ride alongside the main flow of traffic, rather than directly in it
    • Stay as close to the left side of the road as possible, and avoid drifting towards the centre of the lane. Always ride in the direction of traffic flow, and never against it
    • Remember that traffic lights, signs and signals apply just as much to you as a road user as they do to cars and other motorised vehicles
    • Be especially vigilant when passing parked cars; doors may open suddenly on either side of a parked vehicle, so adopt a suitably low speed in areas where traffic is stopped for any reason
    • Make sure you can be seen easily at all times; especially at night, but equally during the day:
      • Wear bright or reflective clothing whenever you’re out peddling
      • Fit both the front and rear of your bike with suitably powerful lights for cycling in the dark or during inclement weather
    • Use clear, exaggerated hand signals when changing lanes or making a turn
    • Slow down for any unusual or hazardous road conditions, including:
      • Poor quality or wet surfaces
      • Severe weather
      • Unexpected stoppages to the flow of traffic caused by incidents not directly related to you
    • Always ride at a consistent speed and in a straight, predictable line
    • Equip yourself with appropriate safety wear, including a helmet that fits properly and won’t slide around or work loose
    • Never ride with headphones in, while using a phone, or when intoxicated

    Teaching Road Safety

    • The best teaching of road safety starts young: it’s vital to impress on children the importance of staying safe around vehicles from an early age
    • Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among children in high-income nations, and the risk increases significantly as they approach their early teens and start to take on more independence
    • When teaching road safety to young children, be aware of any sensitivities they may have around the subject before starting:
      • If they’ve experienced any fear, grief or trauma as a result of road accidents, it’s important to assess whether it’s right to continue
      • Talk to the child and their carer about any potential problems, and take appropriate steps
    • Always try to incorporate some sort of practical element into road safety teaching, but of course, it’s important to make sure this is done safely and with qualified personnel
    • Good options include contacting local authorities or schools to see whether any pedestrian or cyclist training modules are available as external courses or public talks
    • The age of the child being taught will dictate what counts as an appropriate message when delivering any education or training
    • It’s vitally important to convey the full gravity of road safety issues, but it’s important not to overcomplicate things or take them out of their comfort zone
    • Aim for an ‘ABC’ model when thinking about giving lessons in road safety:
      • A for awareness (why traffic is a danger)
      • B for behaviour (what they can do to improve their own safety)
      • C for choices (how they can employ better decision-making and influence others)
      • Under-8s should never be using roads unaccompanied, due to their difficulties in judging speed and distance, and their reduced ability to fully understand or predict driver behaviours
      • For this reason, only the A and B lessons will be appropriate for younger children
    • For practical ideas about how to convey the severity of the threat posed by traffic to young children, and to help them understand why these lessons are so important, consult some of the many useful guides published online:
      • Organisations such as have a particularly comprehensive set of resources available
    • In most cases:
      • Children over the age of 5 can be taught the basics of the Green Cross Code very effectively
      • By the age of 9, they’re typically ready to explore more complex road safety awareness issues such as:
        • Driver responsibility
        • The dangers of peer pressure in risk-taking behaviours
        • The longer-lasting impact of traffic accidents on survivors and bereaved families
    • Older children and teenagers can be engaged in road safety talks across a much wider range of issues, and will usually have a great deal to contribute:
      • At this age, it can be harder to engage young people in a discussion initially, as there’s often a misplaced belief that road safety awareness begins and ends with a basic understanding of the Green Cross Code for five-year-olds
      • However, the broader contexts of victim impact, societal responsibility, political lobbying and economic factors can all be used to engage teens and young people in deeper and more dynamic discussions
      • Build lessons on their existing experiences and views, without any implication that they’re simply being taught basic black-and-white rules

    Spreading Awareness of Road Safety

    • For those of you looking to help spread the word, it’s well worth exploring the ongoing programme of activity being organised globally by YOURS (Youth for Road Safety)
    • Among other initiatives, YOURS has produced a downloadable Youth and Road Safety Action Kit, which helps young people address:
      • Why they’re at such especially elevated risk from road accidents
      • How speeding, distracted driving, alcohol and drug use, non-use of helmets and other risk factors contribute to road traffic injuries
      • How they can get on board with a focus on planning and implementing road safety projects
      • It also provides a set of briefings on key actions and processes that will make their projects successful: partnership building, community participation, networking, and fundraising
    • You can also register to take part in this year’s Road Safety Week, organised by Brake:
      • The programme offers ‘an opportunity to promote life-saving messages and show a commitment to road safety to employees and their families, customers, suppliers and your local community’
    • Ways to get more directly involved in Road Safety Week and other awareness-raising initiatives organised by Brake include:
      • Promoting road safety online – download and share a social media poster, add email signatures to your outgoing emails, or add banners and Twibbons to Facebook and Twitter
      • Write blogs about road safety issues on your organisation’s website, especially if it has a local reach and you can tailor the content to your area
      • Make a Road Safety Awareness display for the foyer or canteen of your workplace or school, or even take it out to your local community at special events – try contacting supermarkets, libraries and town halls to see what they can offer in terms of space
      • Purchase a giant road safety banner from Brake to display in your local community group premises or schools if they’ll grant permission
      • Organise a community campaign on any local road safety concerns or issues: lobby for lower speeds, clearer signs or improvements to crossing zones
      • Ask your boss what your company can do to get involved and support initiatives like Road Safety Week – there are dozens of examples and case studies from previous events on the Brake website

    Explore the ongoing work of the World Health Organisation in promoting the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety (2011-2020):

    • The UN Road Safety Collaboration supports two global collaboration networks: a network of young road safety advocates through YOURS: Youth for Road Safety, and a network of NGOs through the Global Alliance of NGOs for Road Safety
    • The Global Alliance now boasts membership from over 140 organizations in more than 90 countries. It serves as a forum from which its members can collectively advocate for road safety and the rights of victims of road traffic injury