EU misses road safety target but promotes hi-tech cars

Barroso and his electric car.

Most EU countries are currently off-track on their objective to halve the number of road deaths by 2010, according to a mid-term Commission report. Meanwhile, hi-tech cars emerge as a new priority in EU road safety policy.

The mid-term review of the 3rd European road safety action programme, published on 22 February 2006, points to contrasting situations across EU countries for the period 2001-2004:

  • 41,600 people died in road accidents in 2005, down from about 50,000 in 2001 or a 17.5% decrease (figures cover the whole of the EU-25)
  • Best progress achieved:
    • France: 8,162 to 5,530 deaths (-32%)
    • Portugal: 1,670 to 1,294 deaths (-23%)
  • Least progress or backward trend:
    • Poland: 5,534 to 5,712 deaths (+3%)
    • Czech Republic: 1,334 to 1,382 deaths (+4%)

However, progress was described as insufficient by Jacques Barrot, the EU Commission Vice-President in charge of transport policy: “Progress at the current rate will not be sufficient to reduce by 25,000 the number of deaths per year by 2010. At the current pace, Europe will have more than 32,500 deaths on roads by 2010,” he pointed out.

Motorcyclists appear to be most at risk, with deaths rising between 2000 and 2003 when elsewhere, the total number of road deaths was falling. Tackling the safety of motorcyclists is now “a matter of urgency,” the Commission said.

Besides, country statistics need to be interpreted carefully and put in relation to total population and the number of cars in circulation, the Commission cautioned. The UK for instance performed relatively well compared to countries of similar size even though it made slow progress in percentage terms (3,368 deaths in 2004, down from 3,598 in 2001 or a 6% reduction). Others like Malta are so small that a single casualty has heavy consequences on statistics (deaths fell from 16 in 2001 to 13 in 2004, or a 19% reduction).

No new proposals were immediately put forward with the review, but Barrot recalled that EU legislation remained to be implemented at national level:

  • May 2006: safety belt becomes mandatory for all commercial vehicles, “including coaches and minibuses”.
  • May 2006: digital tachograph becomes mandatory to monitor a truck’s speed and journey duration. “I will not accept additional delay,” said Barrot who added: “Member states who are late will have to answer before the Court.”
  • January 2007: special ‘blind spot’ rear-view mirror become mandatory for every new truck registered.
  • Spring 2007: minimum rest time for truck drivers enters into force (maximum 56 driving hours per week) (EURACTIV, 3 Feb. 2006).

Meanwhile, promoting new technologies and ‘intelligent’ cars emerged as a central plank of the Commission’s broader road safety strategy. 

“Intelligent cars can help solve our key road transport problems: safety, traffic congestion and energy consumption,” said Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding on 21 February as she presented the Commission’s new “ intelligent car initiative “.

She said existing systems, such as braking assistance (ABS) or electronic stabilising systems (ESP) should be made available to all vehicles more speedily and fitted to vehicles across all class ranges, including cheaper models. 

But newer technologies such as lane-departure warning, collision avoidance and active pedestrian protection based on detection and warning should also be promoted, she said.

The European Transport Safety Council (ETSC), an independent non-profit organisation, said it was disappointed with the road safety mid-term review. "The European Commission has not kept its promise to propose legislation if there was not a significant drop in the number of deaths," the ETSC said.

"Despite some laudable isolated national achievements, EU road safety policy is far from a success story and the gap between the best- and the worst-performing Member States is widening," ETSC said.

ETSC recommended that the Commission adopt a directive on infrastructure safety and table "without delay" legislation on blind spot mirrors and daytime running lights.

"We must not just look at what technologies exist, but examine what policies we need to support their application," said Jörg Beckmann, Executive Director of the ETSC. "In the longer run we must look beyond 2010 and examine how technologies now being developed can be used to support policies so as to maximise their safety benefits," Beckmann continued.

The Commission's 2001 White Paper on Transport set out the objective of halving the number of deaths on EU roads by 2010. The objective was later incorporated into the Commission's 3rd Road Safety Action Programme, adopted in 2003. After enlargement in 2004, the objective was translated to a maximum figure of 25,000 fatalities a year. According to the European Commission:

  • Human error is involved in almost 93% of accidents
  • Costs are calculated to amount to €200 bn, or 2% of EU GDP
  • 2-3 March 2006: informal EU transport ministers Council to focus on road safety. Further initiatives may be decided then.
  • 2006: Barrot said he will submit new proposals on cross-border enforcement of road related penalties for approval by the College of Commissioners.

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