Joined up thinking can save lives on our roads

Elisabeth Roth and Liz Phipps describe how a pot of paint can improve safety on Welsh roads

According to the Road Safety Foundation, the A40 between Llandovery and Carmarthen is the most improved road in the UK. During the two years 2006 to 2008, simple road improvements led to a reduction of  serious and fatal collisions by 20 compared with the previous two years, a fall of 74 per cent.

In the years 2003 to 2005, there were 27 fatal and serious collisions. Yet from 2006 to 2008, that figure was reduced to seven. As lawyers based in Cardiff, who spend all our working days trying as best we can to put right the catastrophic injuries suffered by the unwary and innocent road user, we have come to know this road only too well.

Let’s stay on the A40 for a moment, near Ammanford. The 25 May 2007 was an ordinary day. It was one o’clock, lunchtime, when a retired ambulance driver was riding his motorcycle towards Llandeilo. He had no reason to take particular note of the car travelling in the opposite direction, until suddenly it turned right, across his path. He was rushed to hospital, his life in the balance.  Fortunately he recovered, though he suffered life-threatening septicaemia and blood clots and now has one leg shorter than the other. He still lives in danger of deep vein thrombosis.

Another day on the A40, this time in 2006 close to Haverfordwest, a young man of 25 pulls out to overtake. The road has three lanes, and the middle lane is for overtaking in both directions. There is the brow of a hill just ahead. In the other direction an 18-year-old driver has also pulled out to overtake a lorry. There is a head-on collision. The 18-year-old dies. The other driver has severe injuries to his brain, from which he will never recover.

That accident is much less likely to happen now, because the road markings have been changed. It was a simple enough procedure, yet if it had been done earlier it could have saved two lives. These are three lives which will never be the same again. One was lost and the other two were only saved by hours of urgent and expert and very expensive care by doctors and nursing staff.

They are three lives from among dozens over the past few years which have been lost or ruined on this one road alone. What would it cost to eradicate those dangers and how has the A40 been so improved?

According to the annual road tracking survey by the Road Safety Foundation, in some instances it’s taken little more than the cost of a pot of paint. On the A40, junctions have been upgraded, new road markings introduced and the road resurfaced. Of course, all of this work costs money, and we can only be well aware of the stringent budget cuts expected on every aspect of government expenditure – certainly including the Department for Transport. Yet consider also what those lives cost. The government has tried to evaluate the cost to society of road accidents, taking into account all relevant factors, financial and human.  According to their statistics, the average cost of a road accident, in terms of lost output, medical treatment and the human costs involved is £52,850. That is an average for all road users, and figures vary dramatically according to the role the victim was playing.

Naturally enough, the more secure your means of conveyance, the less likely you are to suffer serious injury and so the costs of treating you are lower. So bus and coach occupants are the most secure in the event of an accident.  The average cost of treating each passenger in the event of a road accident is £27,750.  Car drivers are more at risk and so are more likely to suffer serious injury. The average cost of treating each car driver involved in an accident is an average of £40,980.

More at risk, predictably, are pedal cyclists (average cost £53,630) and pedestrians (£84,690). But most of all at risk are motorcyclists. They comprise many of the clients whose legal cases we manage. Their added exposure to danger means the average cost of treating a biker is a staggering £100,050.

There is no point in trying to evaluate the monstrous and agonising cost of the human tragedy involved. But on these figures, the cost of treating these victims was well over £300,000. Yet two of them could have been saved simply by painting a solid white line instead of dotted one.

According to the Audit Commission, each year well over 3,000 people die road accidents across the UK, 240,000 are injured, and 25,000 of them seriously. It costs the NHS £470 million a year to treat the casualties. Damage to property is £500 million and the total value of lost output to the economy is £2.2 billion.

If the Department for Transport can save a few £1,000 by not upgrading a dangerous road junction, that will probably look good in its accounts. The Chancellor will be pleased. But how does that stack up against the hideous injuries and the enormous additional cost to the NHS? On the Treasury’s own financial terms it’s actually much cheaper to invest in a bit of paint and some kerb stones, which will save lives, than be stingy with road improvements and have to pick up the enormous bills for treating the seriously injured.

Let’s consider the 20 collisions avoided over two years on the A40 alone. Shall we call that figure £900,000 saved? Then consider that the 74 per cent improvement in road accidents on the A40 isn’t in any way unusual. According to the Road Safety Foundation, the top ten improved roads in the UK have saved an average of 70 per cent of previous fatal and serious collisions.

We really have to become much more sophisticated in the way we make decisions on public policy, especially those involving spending money. In this case, the catastrophic injury and loss of life so needlessly incurred on our roads should itself be enough to change the way we make decisions.  But if it’s not, then proof that it can save money as well means there is no excuse for not doing the obvious.

Elisabeth Roth and Liz Phipps work with the Cardiff-based law firm New Law ( and are campaigning for joined-up thinking on road safety.

3 thoughts on “Joined up thinking can save lives on our roads

  1. Lost output and medical costs I can understand but how can we put a pound value on the human costs? Could you please give a bit more detail on what the £52,850 represents?

  2. The road from Llandovery to Carmarthen is a devil of a road, it’s narrow, bendy, much of it no verges and it is not surprising their are accidents.
    The other one, A40 to Haverfordwest can be equally hazardous at certain points, we should be championing bus travel and distinct cycle lanes much moreso.

  3. The information is drawn from a report by the Department of Transport’s traffic analysis guidance unit published in April 2009. The figures are based on three criteria:

    · human costs, based on *WTP values, representing pain, grief and suffering to the casualty, relatives and friends, and, for fatal casualties, the intrinsic loss of enjoyment of life, excepting consumption of goods and services.

    · loss of output due to injury. This is calculated as the present value of the expected loss of earnings plus any non-wage payments (national insurance contributions, etc.) paid by the employer. This includes the present value of consumption of goods and services that is lost as a result of injury accidents.

    · ambulance costs and the costs of hospital treatment.

    * Since 1993, the valuation of both fatal and non-fatal casualties has been based on a consistent willingness to pay (WTP) approach. This approach encompasses all aspects of the valuation of casualties including the human costs and the direct economic costs. That is to say the Department’s values for preventing casualties include an amount to reflect pain, grief and suffering, as well as the lost output and medical costs associated with road accident injuries.

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