Posted by: wesleyjohnston | September 24, 2012

Why are people still dying on Northern Ireland’s roads?

I was intending to write about the topic of road deaths tonight, but it is particularly poignant given that the past 24 hours have seen three tragedies on our roads: a 71 year old motorcyclist killed on the M1, a 1 year old baby killed near Antrim and a 39 year old lorry driver killed near Coalisland. We must always be conscious that behind every statistic is a person and a family.

Last week the DOE launched a new road safety campaign entitled “Excuses”. The hard-hitting adverts (see UTV report here) try to get across the message that 95% of fatal/serious injury crashes are actually caused by human error, and are therefore potentially avoidable. More on this below – but first some background.

Reducing road deaths is one of the success stories of the past few decades. Road deaths in Northern Ireland have been falling consistently. Road deaths peaked around 1972, when a staggering 372 people died on the province’s roads. Despite the number of cars registered in Northern Ireland  nearly tripling in that time period, annual road deaths have fallen by 84%. 2011 saw 59 people killed, the second lowest since records began.

How has this reduction been achieved? The three principal strategies have been:

  1. Driver awareness. Campaigns making people aware of the dangers of drink driving, excessive speed, using mobile phones while driving and driving after taking drugs have all had significant impacts on road deaths as the message appears to have got through to all but a hard core of the population.
  2. Vehicle safety. Safety features such as shatter-resistant glass, seatbelts, child seats, crumple zones, flexible bonnets (to help pedestrian survival in  an impact), airbags and skirt walls on lorries to prevent cars sliding under them mean that people today can often survive impacts that would certainly have killed them in years gone by.
  3. Road design. Roads Service have worked hard to improve safety through junction improvements, dual-carriageway upgrades, sightline improvements, anti-friction road surfaces, crash barriers etc, all of which have helped to save hundreds of lives over the years. For example, motorways are, on average, ten times safer than single-carriageway A roads.

Still, people are still dying. Why? What are the primary causes of road deaths today? Here are the top ten* causes of crashes in Northern Ireland where someone was killed or seriously injured:

  1. 12% – Excessive speed
  2. 10% – Inattention (ie not looking where you’re going)
  3. 9% – Alcohol (drink driving)
  4. 8% – Crossing the road without noticing vehicles coming
  5. 7% – Wrong course or position (eg wrong lane)
  6. 5% – Carelessness when turning out of a side road
  7. 5% – Carelessness when turning right
  8. 5% – Carelessness when crossing a junction
  9. 4% – Overtaking on the left (offside)
  10. 1% – Driving too close.

Excessive speed is still the number one killer, although it is worth noting that in total it accounts for just 12% of cases. Better speed limit enforcement and increased awareness of the dangers of excessive speed are vitally important, but from where we are now such measures can only ever hope to prevent a small percentage of road deaths. Similarly, drink driving campaigns have been successful to the point where drink driving is now socially unacceptable, and only a hard core of people continue to risk lives by doing this.

The crucial point is that in 2012 the vast majority of deaths are a result of pure carelessness, and that is what the latest DOE road safety advert focuses in on. If we are going to reduce road deaths further, then it is not speed or alcohol but driver education that is the number one area that we need to focus on. This means reminding drivers that their vehicle is large enough to kill, and that driving carries with it a burden of responsibility to drive safely and with 100% attention at all times.

The statistics above suggest that the areas of driver attention, other than speed and alcohol, that need particular attention are:

  • Learning to pay attention at all times.
  • Paying particular attention at junctions.
  • Leaving a safe distance between you and the vehicle in front.
  • Understanding lane discipline / how to use lanes.
  • Being aware of the potential for pedestrians to step out without looking.
  • Overtaking.

And, for pedestrians, particular attention needs to be given to:

  • Ensuring that the way is clear before crossing the road.

All of this demonstrates that driver education, not legislation, is the best way to achieve a further reduction in road deaths. For example, actual driver education is likely to be more effective than simply legislating that people pay attention. The DOE’s latest and excellent road safety campaign recognises this key point and is geared towards this precise goal.

Since the DOE suggests that 95% of crashes are a result of human error, this means that if we could eliminate human error completely (unlikely, but possible) then we could get road deaths down to around 3 per year, ie down to the number that are genuinely unpreventable. It would be truly fantastic if news stories such as the triple tragedy of the past 24 hours could be consigned to history.

My only criticism of the campaign is the slightly embarrassing attempt to re-define the word “accident”. The advert implies that if a crash is “preventable” it is therefore not an “accident”. This is a misuse of English. My dictionary defines an “accident” as “an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury“. This describes practically all crashes. The DOE’s campaign is excellent, and there is no need for it to engage in trying to redefine common English words.

*Source: “Police Recorded Injury Road Traffic Collisions and Casualties Northern Ireland”, PSNI, May 2012. According to this, a total of 858 people were killed or seriously injured in Northern Ireland between 1 April 2011 and 31 Mar 2012.


  1. Why are numbers 2 and 5-10 listed separately? I would imagine the same drivers committing multiples of these. The only reason to split these up is to get speed to the top of the list.

    • An interesting point – these are the criteria used by the PSNI. As I say in the article, “speed” was the primary factor in just 12% of the deaths/serious injuries. Driver carelessness is the dominant factor in road deaths today, as I concluded.

  2. I present a lot of driver education courses and get great feedback,and it is working,how people can change thier driving without even having a test or leaving a room,deaths this year are at the moment down again,and I personally will strive to inform and keep it that way

  3. […] Recently released figures from PSNI showed that in 2011 there was a slight reduction in road casualties, a 2% annual drop to 8,760. There were 59 fatalities in 2011, a slight rise from 55 in 2010 which was the fewest number since records began in 1931. Wesley Johnston analyses why, despite great reductions over the last few decades, people are still dying on our roads. […]

  4. […] Last year I blogged in more detail about why people are still dying on our roads these days. In that blog I demonstrated that the principal cause of road deaths today is not drugs or speed or alcohol but carelessness, basically not adequately paying attention to what’s going on around. […]

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