Road traffic safety refers to methods and measures for reducing the risk of a person using the road network being killed or seriously injured. The users of a road include pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, their passengers, and passengers of on-road public transport, mainly buses and trams. Best-practice road safety strategies focus upon the prevention of serious injury and death crashes in spite of human fallibility (which is contrasted with the old road safety paradigm of simply reducing crashes assuming road user compliance with traffic regulations).
Safe road design is now about providing a road environment which ensures vehicle speeds will be within the human tolerances for serious injury and death wherever conflict points exist. The basic strategy of a Safe System approach is to ensure that in the event of a crash, the impact energies remain below the threshold likely to produce either death or serious injury.
This threshold will vary from crash scenario to crash scenario, depending upon the level of protection offered to the road users involved.
For example, the chances of survival for an unprotected pedestrian hit by a vehicle diminish rapidly at speeds greater than 30 km/h, whereas for a properly restrained motor vehicle occupant the critical impact speed is 50 km/h (for side impact crashes) and 70 km/h (for head-on crashes). —International Transport Forum, Towards Zero, Ambitious Road Safety Targets and the Safe System Approach, Executive Summary page 19 As sustainable solutions for all classes of road have not been identified, particularly lowly trafficked rural and remote roads, a hierarchy of control should be applied, similar to best practice Occupational Safety and Health. At the highest level is sustainable prevention of serious injury and death crashes, with sustainable requiring all key result areas to be considered.
At the second level is real time risk reduction, which involves providing users at severe risk with a specific warning to enable them to take mitigating action. The third level is about reducing the crash risk which involves applying the road design standards and guidelines (such as from AASHTO), improving driver behaviour and enforcement. Road traffic crashes are one of the world’s largest public health and injury prevention problems. The problem is all the more acute because the victims are overwhelmingly healthy prior to their crashes. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than a million people are killed on the world’s roads each year. A report published by the WHO in 2004 estimated that some 1.2m people were killed and 50m injured in traffic collisions on the roads around the world each year and was the leading cause of death among children 10 – 19 years of age. The report also noted that the problem was most severe in developing countries and that simple prevention measures could halve the number of deaths.
The standard measures used in assessing road safety interventions are fatalities and Killed or Seriously Injured (KSI) rates, usually per billion (109) passenger kilometres. Countries caught in the old road safety paradigm, replace KSI rates with crash rates – for example, crashes per million vehicle miles. Vehicle speed within the human tolerances for serious injury and death is a key goal of modern road design because impact speed affects the severity of injury to both occupants and pedestrians. For occupants, Joksch (1993) found the probability of death for drivers in multi-vehicle accidents increased as the fourth power of impact speed (often referred to by the mathematical term δv (“delta V”), meaning change in velocity). Injuries are caused by sudden, severe acceleration (or deceleration), this is difficult to measure. However, crash reconstruction techniques can be used to estimate vehicle speeds before a crash.
Therefore, the change in speed is used as a surrogate for acceleration. This enabled the Swedish Road Administration to identify the KSI risk curves using actual crash reconstruction data which lead to the human tolerances for serious injury and death referenced above. Interventions are generally much easier to identify in the modern road safety paradigm, whose focus is on the human tolerances for serious injury and death. For example, the elimination of head on KSI crashes simply required the installation of an appropriate median crash barrier. For example, roundabouts, with speed reducing approaches, encounter very few KSI crashes. The old road safety paradigm of purely crash risk is a far more complex matter. Contributing factors to highway crashes may be related to the driver (such as driver error, illness or fatigue), the vehicle (brake, steering, or throttle failures) or the road itself (lack of sight distance, poor roadside clear zones, etc.).
Interventions may seek to reduce or compensate for these factors, or reduce the severity of crashes that do occur. A comprehensive outline of interventions areas can be seen in Management systems for road safety. In addition to management systems, which apply predominantly to existing networks in built-up areas, another class of interventions relates to the design of roadway networks for new districts. Such interventions explore the configurations of a network that will inherently reduce the probability of collisions.
Interventions for the prevention of road traffic injuries are often evaluated; the Cochrane Library has published a wide variety of reviews of interventions for the prevention of road traffic injuries. For road traffic safety purposes it can be helpful to classify roads into ones in built-up area, non built-up areas and then major highways (Motorways/Freeways etc.) Most casualties occur on roads in built-up areas and major highways are the safest in relation to vehicle mileage. Reported Road Casualties Great Britain for 2008 show that the vast majority of injuries occur in built-up areas but that most fatalities occur on non built-up roads.