When was the last time you heard about a serious road accident? The chances are it was quite recently. Worldwide more than a million people still die on the roads every year, and anything up to 50 million people are injured, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organisation. In fact, the leading cause of death for those aged between five and 29 is not disease, or war, but road traffic accidents.
Contrast that with air travel. In 2019 – when the skies were still full of planes – the number of deaths involving commercial flights was 239.
Of course, 239 deaths is 239 too many, but compared with approximately 1.35 million road deaths each year it is an astonishingly low figure. Flying is extremely safe, while driving is surprisingly dangerous. The question we should be asking is: how can we make driving as safe as flying? How can the roads become as safe as the skies?
The answer is not hard to find. It comes down to two things: training and technology.
Think like a pilot
The training part of the equation is where psychology meets road safety. If drivers thought like pilots – and had some of their training – a lot of crashes simply wouldn't happen. Because pilots are trained to avoid common mental habits that lead to accidents.
For example, they are trained to use checklists before a journey begins, running through all the safety functions of the aircraft one by one and taking action if anything is wrong. They are trained to think objectively and avoid the state of mind that makes you think that because an accident hasn't happened in the past it won't happen in the future.
They are also trained to avoid “target fixation”, which is common to both flying and driving. This happens when a driver fixes their attention on an obstacle or threat, such as a moving vehicle ahead, and instead of avoiding that threat drives straight towards it. It may sound counter-intuitive, but target fixation is one of the commonest causes of accidents in which drivers crash into parked cars.
As cars have become progressively safer – with more impact protection, safer materials, better brakes and complex warning systems – and authorities have reduced speed limits to 20mph (30kmh) in many built-up areas, the actions and awareness of the driver are becoming the critical factors in avoiding accidents. And when it comes to awareness there is one new part of the road safety puzzle that has yet to fall into place: digital data.
Understand your “driving environment”
Smarter driving is all about the way the driver relates to the vehicle and the world around it in terms of the vehicle's performance, weather conditions, traffic conditions, road hazards, and the way these are constantly changing. Communication technologies are providing new ways of interacting with that “driving environment”, much in the way they already do for pilots up in the skies.
Modern vehicles have multiple computer chips on board, gathering data on everything from traffic conditions to weather and even the type of surface they are travelling on as braking and traction systems compute whether roads are wet or dry or icy. Thanks to the cellular and satellite connections that are available in many places, this data can be collated and analysed remotely to create a picture of the driving environment and forecast likely changes.
Roads that seem empty may suddenly become congested. Weather that seems benign may suddenly turn nasty. A car that is performing normally may be about to fail. There are even predictive systems that use car cameras and artificial intelligence to warn whether a pedestrian or vehicle is behaving in a way that might be about to cause an accident.
All this information is already available somewhere, whether inside or outside the vehicle – for example traffic conditions are reported by services such as Google Maps which give feedback based on thousands of users' data. But such applications only represent one company's data feed. Today there is potential to combine data from many organisations as well as sources like devices in cars and static roadside sensors. This could build an integrated picture of the driving environment that could be used without having to consult a host of mobile apps: instead a single screen or readout on the vehicle console would do the job without distracting from normal driving.
The reason this is not happening already is because systems and data formats are incompatible – and also because commercial organisations do not much like to share data.
But an effort is under way to pull this data together and create a real-time picture of the driving environment, available to anyone who wants it. The European Commission-backed Data for Road Safety initiative aims to create common standards for data sharing between private companies and official sources.
The initiative is currently calling for more participants to sign up and agree to share their data. Whether the data owners will do so is an open question, but they certainly should.
After all, lives depend on it.