Why we need societal change in road safety

David Hindmarsh

David Hindmarsh has had over 31 years of experience within the Met Police and has been involved in the investigations of many serious and fatal collisions.

Here, he explains about why we need societal change in road safety, and why the word “accident” needs to be made redundant.

Contemporarily, the fatal four remain a high risk in collisions, which are:  inappropriate Speed for the road conditions, mobile telephone use, failing to wear a seatbelt, and driving whilst intoxicated.

Now that I have retired from the police, I frequently see drivers using their mobiles, and I am astounded that drivers would rather sit on their seat belt or buy a device to fool the car, than actually wear it. Sadly, I have been involved in the investigation of collisions where those not wearing a seatbelt have been killed, but passengers who have worn their seatbelt have survived.

I strongly believe there needs to be a societal change, and it starts with the use of the word “accident”.

Back in 2005, following the 7/7 terrorist attack, a Professor John Adams, (a leading academic expert on risk) wrote an article entitled: “What kills you matters- not numbers.”

In the article, he highlights that various terrorist atrocities across the world have resulted in less fatalities than road death, but the response to each factor is very different.

In Britain, on an average day, nine people die and over 800 are injured in road accidents. The mangled metal, the pain of the victims, and the grief of families and friends, one might suppose, are similar in both cases. Measured in terms of life and limb, 7/7 represented six days of death on the road. But thousands do not gather weekly in Trafalgar Square to manifest their collective concern. Why?”

During my time investigating collisions, I have heard the phrases: “it’s just an accident “or, “it’s not a real crime”. The use of such phrases couldn’t be more insensitive to victims and their families. I certainly have never heard anyone say it’s just a murder or it’s just a terrorist attack.

Since 2008, new legislation and sentencing guidelines have started to be introduced to cover several new offences, the first new offence was S2b Road Traffic Act, causing a death by careless driving.

I had the first prosecution in London.

Surprisingly, the trial judge made comment in court: “Parliament has now passed legislation whereby it tries to deny the fact that accidents do happen. Should you be prosecuting a lorry driver for death by careless driving, because the pedestrian didn’t know the highway code?”

This view, albeit some years ago, shocked me, and its insensitivity towards the family and friends of the deceased hit me to the core.

I did some research as part of my master’s degree and I looked at some key organisations and found there had been some positive moves to change the terminology from accidents, which would suggest that no one was to blame, to collisions which subjectively I think suggests a person was at fault and therefore liable.

This is supported by the charity Road Peace, where one of their key principles is to treat road crime as “real crime”. However, the terminology is not universal across England & Wales, Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) state on their FAQ website page the following: “In Greater Manchester, different councils have different viewpoints on which terminology should be used. However, it has been decided that at a Greater Manchester level, the term road accident should be used”. In comparison Transport for London (TfL) have adopted the “Vision Zero” strategy, as part of the Mayor of London’s transport strategy, the terminology used by both, is that of collisions, whilst the Department for Transport (DfT) still use the word accident. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) have a specific entry on their web site regarding staff contact with families or victims. They state “the term collision and not accident MUST be used. It is particularly important when the manor of driving has resulted in death or serious injury to a victim, to use the term “Fatal Collision or Collision in all correspondence, conversations at court and in meetings”.

When Serious Collision Investigation Units (SCIU) are compared against Murder Investigation teams, the roles, and responsibilities in the two types of investigation are mirrored, but despite this, the resources are significantly less. So, both teams have the responsibility to identify the victim, identify and locate the suspect, manage, and harvest forensic material from all crime scenes, identify witnesses, identify, and collate other evidential opportunities, such as CCTV, including other digital material, provide a family liaison officer to support the families, compile a case file and either present the evidence at a Coroners inquiry or within a Criminal court. The only difference between a murder and a road death is the evidential burden to prove the “Mens rea” (Latin for guilty mind).

So, within the London area the SCIU have 16 teams with a total of 76 officers and have dealt with in the year Aug 2021 up to Aug 2022, 170 collisions this is further broken down into 75 fatal collisions and 96 life changing collisions.

In comparison, the London Murder Investigation team is made up of 20 teams, with a total of 464 officers, and includes an extra cold case review team of 29 officers, making a total of 493 officers. In the year 2021 up to (16/09/2022) they had dealt with 73 murder investigations.

The most startling of observations is the clear disparity in resources versus the number of cases investigated by the two-investigation team, real change needs to come, and fast.

I know people do say that achieving zero road fatalities is impossible. However, if they were to see each fatality as a life lost, or even think of it as a member of their own family, and the impact a road death causes, rather as s statistic, would they still not wish to set zero fatalities as the ambition? I think zero is the only target to strive towards, as how many road deaths are acceptable?

The answer is zero.


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