Over the past 80 years how we drive, and what we drive, has changed immeasurably with evolutions in motor technology as well as increased road safety awareness. As a consequence, road traffic accidents have fallen consistently.
But figures released by the Department for Transport this month show a 9% increase year-on-year in car accidents where people are killed or seriously injured. Whether this is a blip or the start of a worrying upward trend, the fact is that however much technology has advanced, driving is still one of the most dangerous things we will ever do and deserves 100% focus behind the wheel.
One of the UK’s first vehicle safety laws was introduced as long ago as 1865 and called the ‘Locomotives on Highways Act’, more commonly known as the red flag law. This act required all mechanically powered road vehicles to have a minimum of three drivers, stick to a 4 mph speed limit and be preceded by a man on foot holding a lantern and waving a red flag to warn other road users.
By the 1880s, the lantern carrier was out of a job as the first vehicle headlamps were officially introduced based on acetylene and oil, and Cadillac rolled out the first modern electric headlamp system in 1912.
When the Highway Code launched in 1931 there was no mention of mirrors and drivers were advised to sound their horn while overtaking. By 1935, the year of the first driving tests, just 2.4 million vehicles were in use yet 7,343 people were killed on Great Britain’s roads.
It’s shocking when you consider that in 2015 the figure for road deaths was 1,732 despite the number of vehicles licensed for use on the roads rising to 36.5 million. As early as 1937 speedometers and safety glass in windscreens were made compulsory.
Seat belts, head restraints and rear-view mirrors
Jumping forward to the age of sideburns and flares, the shocking ‘Clunk Click Every Trip’ campaign aired on TV in 1971 and by the end of that decade, the Green Cross Code was introduced (1978), a brand created to increase pedestrian road safety. Despite the Clunk Click campaign, seat belts weren’t made compulsory in the front seats until 1983 and it only became mandatory for children to wear seat belts in the back seat in 1989, followed three years later by a law that required seat belts to be worn by all car occupants. The eighties also saw the introduction of the Road Traffic Act (1988).
By the 1990s the theory test was introduced (1996) and two years short of the millennium, airbags became a standard requirement in all new cars. It was only in April 1999 that the government specified that all cars being used for driving tests must have a front passenger seat belt, head restraint and rear-view mirror – vital safety enhancements but hardly cutting-edge compared to today’s technology.
Electronic stability control was made standard in all new vehicles in 2011 and by 2012 Automated Emergency Braking was starting to become available in vehicles described as a ‘quantum leap in road safety’.
All of these improvements have helped reduce the number of people killed on our roads.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s cars were heavy and stiff. Advances in body engineering have allowed engineers to design structures that can dissipate and redirect crash forces. Some cars even have seat-belt spools that unwind slightly during a crash to help minimise forces on the body.
Much of today’s safety research concerns accident avoidance: auto braking, steering, and autonomous driving. Volvo was one of the first to offer autonomous emergency braking (AEB) which applies the brakes in certain situations if the driver does not. According to a study by the IIHS, Volvo XC60s equipped with the system were involved in 20% fewer collisions than comparable SUVs without auto braking.
Self-steering cars with automated steering corrections to help the vehicle maintain lane positioning are the next development.
It’s clear that car technology will continue to advance, but what of the driver? What about the young, less-experienced motorists who are least likely to have access to the most advanced safety features and technologies in cars?
Telematics reinforcing good behaviour
This is where telematics insurance is playing a vital role in reinforcing and encouraging safer driving habits. Some 90% of crashes are down to human error, in other words caused by drivers taking an incorrect attitude to risk. This is also true for younger drivers who are even less experienced and adept at anticipating risks when driving.
Telematics devices actively encourage positive driving behaviour. More at-risk drivers can be easily identified by insurers and supported whilst they develop safer driving habits reducing the chances of them being involved in an accident, which is of course beneficial to all road users. In fact drivers with telematics insurance policies are 20% less likely to have an accident.
While cars are getting safer to drive, humans remain in control and we are, after all, human, we make mistakes and bad judgements. With telematics, the data suggests motorists take more care, especially with feedback given through the insurer’s portal. As we see more drivers with telematics and usage-based insurance policies in future, it’s good to remember how far we’ve come with road safety and the human reasons why it is so important.
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