TCS Daily

Easy Riders

By Dominic Standish - March 2, 2004 12:00 AM

The European Commission recently launched something called the European Road Safety Charter. Among other objectives, the Charter requires signatories to promote "continuous education actions and the rehabilitation of high-risk drivers" to halve the number of road deaths by 2010. But is this really necessary when Europeans are driving more carefully, despite more congestion and inadequate roads?

Here in Italy, drivers are famous for imagining they are on a Formula One racetrack. But the situation seems to be improving. The Vice Minister of Transport, Mario Tassone, recently stated that there were 19 percent fewer fatal accidents between July and December 2003. Better driving was attributed to the new licence points system in the joint 13th Report by ACI-Censis on 'The Consumer Advance,' released on 19 January 2004.

Since July 2003, Italian drivers who violate highway codes have been penalized by a points system that can lead to losing a license and repeating driving lessons. Beforehand, road users were generally fined for driving misdemeanors. Licenses were only withdrawn for very serious offences, usually temporarily. Four out of ten Italians surveyed in the Report said that they have changed how they drive due to the points system.

The Minister of Transportation, Pietro Lunardi, has repeatedly said that the new points system has had a positive impact on reducing accidents. The falling accident rate combined with the growing number of road users suggests Italians are driving more carefully. There have been 1.2 million more cars in circulation over the last two years, according to the ACI-Censis Report. It stated that there was a 13 percent increase in the number of Italians who were dependent on cars between 2002 and 2003. Insufficient road improvements and building are additional problems for drivers. The Annual Italian Statistics Bulletin reported in December 2003 that Italy's 173,000 kilometers of roads have not kept up to speed with more vehicles.

In France, another country renowned for Latin road hogs, 8,000 died in car accidents in 2001. Following a series of new laws and an intense government campaign, it was announced last year that road deaths had been reduced by 18 percent in 12 months.

So is driving still very risky? "Despite all the safety improvements, the road remains one of the riskiest locales in daily life," remarked analysts Freund and Martin. Yet the overall probability of dying or being seriously injured in a car accident remains small. Globally, road accidents represent two percent of all deaths. Consider the odds in the Netherlands, a country with long commuting times and heavy congestion. The probability of becoming heavily wounded as a result of a traffic accident is 1:500 (fatally wounded, 1:7,500) on a yearly basis for someone who drives a car for 20,000 kilometers per year, according to De Blaeij and van Vuuren (2003).

Some kinds of people are more at risk than others. In particular, the risks vary considerably according to age group. In the Netherlands, one in three deaths for those aged between 5 and 25 is due to a traffic accident. Worldwide, road accidents are the leading cause of death for males aged 15-44.

Given these odds, why should driving be perceived as universally dangerous? Road use is highly prone to risk consciousness because other people are perceived as a threat in what have been dubbed our 'risk societies' by Ulrich Beck (1992). People tend to think that the risks of driving come from other road users. But transport safety does not exclude our own roles as road users. In particular, when driving distractions like using a cell phone and tolerance of a gap before the vehicle in front are significant accident indicators (Horswill and McKenna, 1999).

De Blaeij and van Vuuren (2003) have raised a problem with understanding how risk influences safety considerations when choosing a method of transport. They believe that "individuals take into account their perceived risk level (instead of the objective risk level) when making their decisions" and that "people lack intuition for interpreting small probabilities."

However, our anxieties about safety cannot simply be explained as the result of poor risk assessments. It has become difficult to know who to trust in our atomized societies. We often think we can gain a fairly accurate sense of risks through contact with people around us. The problem is that in fragmented Europeans societies, individuals are less able to make such generalizations based on social interactions that are often limited in scope.

Panics have become common and have taken hold, creating an era of fear. A sense of being 'at risk' has replaced taking risks. This means risk consciousness has become more about who we are than what we do. Risks have acquired an existence that is independent of our own actions. The only sensible course of action appears to be to try and avoid risks in a quest for safety.

While risk consciousness has become extremely influential, it is not the only factor in the decisions we make. For example, traveling by public transport is much safer than by car. Yet Europeans are using public transport less and private cars more. Between 1970 and 2000, the modal share of public transport fell by 50 percent in average in Europe to reach around 16 percent of the total number of trips, while the share of the private car grew from 73.8 to 78.3 percent (UK Censis, 2003).

Taking public transport is not the only way to reduce the risks of driving. In Italy, the highest mortality rate is between four and five o'clock in the morning as people roll out of discos. So one of the best ways to drive safely on Italian roads is to avoid 'Saturday Night Road Fever.'


Beck, U. (1992), Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London, Sage.

Censis, (2003), 2001 National Report, UK Government.

De Blaeij, A.T. and van Vuuren, D.J. (2003), Risk perception of traffic participants, Accident Analysis and Prevention, No. 35.

Freund, P. and Martin, G. (2001), Moving Bodies: injury, dis-ease and the social organization of space, Critical Public Health, Vol. 11, No. 3.

Horswill, S. and McKenna, F. (1999), The effect of interference on dynamic risk-taking judgements, British Journal of Psychology, No. 90.


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