September 30, 2011 • 4:37 pm

“Our roads are among the safest in Europe.” 

Philip Hammond, Transport Secretary, Today programme 30 September 2011

The announcement that the Government is looking into increasing the speed limit on motorways from 70 mph to 80 mph has prompted much discussion on how safe our roads will be should the change take effect.

Road safety groups have warned of rising accidents in the wake of the changes.

But how safe are our roads currently compared to our European neighbours?

Analysis

Due to the differences in the way road injuries are measured between countries, the standard comparison of road safety is between road deaths.

Comparing road deaths per million of population, the UK comes well down the league table – going from the 2010 statistics only Sweden has a lower rate than the UK’s 31 deaths per million population.

However, these figures are for all roads in the UK. Since the announcement specifically deals with motorways, are our fastest roads still among the safest?

Though somewhat less up-to-date, the European Commission’s Directorate General for Transport does publish figures specifically for motorways.

But the UK is still at the safe end of the league table. Although a few more countries are below us than are for roads overall, the UK is still well below the EU average.

But with road casualties there is always a variety of ways of breaking down the statistics, and there are other ways of looking at the data that show the UK in a less favourable light.

For example if the number of fatalities are given as a proportion of the length of motorways, the UK is above the European average.

Likewise figures published recently by the UN, (though covering 2008) shows that if fatalities are given as a proportion of the number of vehicles, the UK has a rate higher than many European countries which can be seen by the number of countries below the red line.

Conclusion

Despite the multitude of ways breaking down the data there is still plenty to justify the claim made by the Transport Secretary, although the different analyses should be kept in mind.

Unfortunately we have not been able to track down what would have perhaps been a more informative measure: road deaths per miles of journey made – a set of statistics that is measured by the DfT, but apparently not in a comparable way by our European brethren.

Nor are deaths the only aspect to road safety, but again due to the incomparability of the data we cannot get comparisons of road casualties.

So while it may be an incomplete picture, the claim made by Mr Hammond is a faithful representation of one of the key data sources available.
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