Road safety campaigner and journalist Rebecca Morris has written this opinion piece on road safety we are sharing on Highways News:
Imagine for a moment. Imagine that the entire population of a large UK town was suddenly killed or injured. Imagine the scene. Imagine the loss. Imagine the outrage. And imagine the media coverage.
In 2022, more than 135,000 people were killed and injured in collisions on the UK’s roads. That’s the equivalent to the population of West Bromwich, in the West Midlands.
If, heaven forbid, these many UK people were harmed together in an attack or natural disaster, it would be etched forever in our minds and in the history books for eternity.
But because road victims are spread thinly across the UK and are involved in individual crashes in various locations each day, they rarely catch our attention. They rarely get the media coverage or the public outcry that they should.
Road crashes have become an inevitable part of life. Or in the case of the 1,711 people fatally injured in crashes last year – death.
Sadly, last year’s road casualties remained largely the same as the annual figures we’ve seen for more than a decade.
We seem to be consistently maintaining these staggering figures, year on year. This sounds unbelievable – at a time in our lives when technology is storming ahead, beyond most people’s comprehension – AI, driverless vehicles, rockets to the moon. Yet we can’t come up with a solution to stop people coming to harm on our roads, day in, day out.
I honestly believe (and I live in hope for this day), that we will look back on this time in our lives in disbelief: “Remember when five people were being killed every single day in road crashes?” And it will sound inconceivable.
But the problem is, there isn’t just one solution to fix this. There needs to be a concerted shake-up from the Government to reduce road crime – which involves making changes right across the system.
Regrettably, there is no instant remedy. Achieving progress requires a comprehensive approach: legislative reforms to strengthen the law, the strategic utilisation of technology, a revamp of enforcement methods and a profound transformation in our road user culture.
Yet we can take comfort that, locally, highway authorities, police forces, safer roads partnerships, charities, campaigners and organisations across the country are working hard to reduce road harm.
Many authorities have now committed to Vision Zero – the aspiration of eliminating road deaths and serious injuries by 2040.
We have an arduous journey ahead of us, but here are the top five priorities for authorities to ensure they are on track to achieving Vision Zero:
1. Maximise Public Engagement
Credit: Safer Essex Roads Partnership
An essential part of any local Vision Zero strategy, is communicating with members of the public and educating them about the need to share the road responsibly.
The main message throughout our engagement with road users should be: ‘Vision Zero is everybody’s responsibility.’ However we use the roads – whether we drive, walk, cycle, scoot or travel on horseback – each and every one of us has an important role to play in sharing the road safely.
In Essex, we developed the Vision Zero pledge, which urges people to support a series of actions when they use the roads, allowing them to make their own personal commitment to Vision Zero.
Research by Dr Helen Wells, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, and Dr Leanne Savigar-Shaw, Senior Lecturer in Policing into the effectiveness of pledges confirmed that: ‘Pledges have a link to behaviour change.. they involve a form of ‘behavioural contract’ and ‘commitment’ to behaviour change.’
The research also showed that: ‘Pledges work better when they are made socially – when we promise to others rather than just to ourselves… This gives meaning to the behaviour.’
Social media is an easy, yet effective way of publicly sharing our commitment to the pledge and encourages others to do the same.
The pledge has been a valuable tool in engaging with members of the public, businesses, schools and stakeholders in Essex, focusing their attention on the actions of the pledge.
- Engage with the public as much as you can – In-person events, social media polls and pledges
- Reach out to schools and businesses and invite them to be part of your Vision Zero journey
- Communicate with existing community groups, such as Neighbourhood Watch, Parish Councils and Community Speedwatch, and urge them to spread the Vision Zero message in their local areas
2. Randomise Enforcement
Credit: Road Safety Support
Safety camera enforcement plays a vital role in reducing speeding and other dangerous behaviour on our roads. But it is vital that the technology is operated strategically, keeping motorists on their toes. Predictable enforcement is no longer achieving casualty reduction, and it has been a long time since it did.
In the early 2000s, when the first safety camera partnerships were established in the UK, fixed and mobile speed cameras were new, unpopular devices, mistrusted by the motoring public.
I was the marketing and publicity manager at Derbyshire Safety Camera Partnership in the mid-2000s, and our strategy, in the infancy of the partnership, was to be open and honest about the cameras and their locations. Our aim was not to ‘catch people’ speeding (despite the thousands of newspaper articles stating the contrary), but to slow people down and prevent casualties.
So we put warning signs up, made our mobile camera vehicles highly visible, painted our fixed cameras yellow and sent a notice to the media every week telling them where our cameras would be located.
We hoped people would stick to the speed limit and drive safely, without the need to fine them or put points on their licence. We wanted people to gradually get used to seeing speed cameras on our road networks and educate them about the dangers of speeding.
It was a softly, softly strategy that was highly effective at the time. But we can no longer keep using this strategy. The time for a soft approach has most certainly passed. Far too many people are still dying on our roads and speeding is still seen as largely acceptable by many motorists.
A four-year evaluation (April 2000 to March 2004) of the National Safety Camera Programme, showed that injury collisions at speed cameras sites reduced by 22%, and overall 42% fewer people were killed or seriously injured.
The results proved that safety camera enforcement is incredibly effective at reducing casualties. But, more than 20 years on, many authorities are still using the same enforcement strategies that they did in the early 2000s.
And as a result, our annual UK casualty figures have remained largely unchanged for more than a decade. We are merely maintaining road deaths and injuries. We are no longer reducing them.
We have to keep adapting our enforcement and communications strategies to start significantly reducing road deaths and injuries. And, as enforcement experts at Road Safety Support put it – we need to ‘raise our game.’
For us to start seeing meaningful reductions in road casualties, through the use of enforcement, drivers need to fear detection. Right now, many drivers know where cameras are going to be, so are likely to simply play the system – slow down on the known camera routes, and speed up elsewhere.
I spent 16 years as the Media and Marketing Manager at Road Safety Support. My former colleagues have decades of experience in deploying, operating and developing speed enforcement cameras and are globally recognised experts in the field.
According to Road Safety Support’s ‘Enforcement Strategy – Raising the Game’ report, ‘Safety cameras need to be used in a more effective way, one that intensifies their deterrent effect on drivers over a wider area.’
- Conduct random and covert enforcement to create general deterrence – Keep motorists ‘on their toes.’ Ie: “I’d better drive safely and stick to the speed limit – there could be a camera down the road”
- No longer advertise the specific locations of safety cameras. Ie: Instead of ‘Our mobile van will be on the B1234 today’ go for ‘Our van will be in the Chelmsford area today. Slow down’
- Improving communications with road users about enforcement – keep educating about ‘why’ not ‘where’
3. Enhance Communications
Road safety communications managers play a pivotal role in advancing the Vision Zero mission. They provide a critical link between the authorities and the public, effectively communicating the principles of road casualty reduction, through Public Relations, social media marketing, advertising and other marketing tools.
Yet sadly, communications is often viewed as a ‘nice to have’ function, rather than the essential role that it is.
Without communications professionals to proactively educate, inform and support road users, authorities only have enforcement to rely on in order to change behaviour on our roads.
But enforcement and communications go hand in hand. It’s difficult for one to be effective without the other.
While enforcement establishes rules, communication ensures understanding, compliance and community engagement.
Clear, accessible communication fosters public awareness of laws, regulations, and safety measures, promoting a shared responsibility for compliance. It enhances trust in enforcement agencies, encouraging a collaborative approach to safety.
I remember a time when the safer roads partnerships across the UK all had ample marketing budgets, allowing them to invest in advertising, research, evaluation and other essential communications activities.
Unfortunately, this is no longer the norm. And this is a sad reflection of how undervalued this essential role is.
- For Vision Zero to be a success, a dedicated safer roads communications manager is essential. Their sole responsibility should be road safety marketing and PR
- I have had the pleasure of working with some great communications managers over the years, who are doing a great job in their local areas. In particular, I must mention Hazel Nicolas, in Warwickshire, Vicki Bristow and Anna Southall in West Mercia and Amy Westby in South Yorkshire
- I’d also recommend checking out the great work going on in the South West in terms of Vision Zero and effective enforcement publicity
- Ensure you have a realistic communications budget. PR and social media marketing are successful tools, and low in cost, but should be used alongside and to support other paid-for activities
4. Strengthen Victims’ Voices
Strengthening the voices of road crash victims and bereaved families in Vision Zero campaigning is a compelling and impactful strategy, that humanises statistics and resonates with individuals on a personal level.
These narratives go beyond mere data, putting a face and a story to the consequences of road collisions. By sharing the experiences of those affected, whether as survivors, families or first responders, these campaigns create a visceral connection that sparks empathy and prompts reflection.
Health charities, such as Cancer Research, frequently feature real-life stories to humanise the impact of illness, and to connect with their audience on a personal and emotional level.
We regularly reflect on the number of deaths and injuries on our roads in our communications. We talk about the extreme grief and devastation that crashes cause to families and communities, but without putting that into context our words may bear little meaning.
Including victims’ voices in our campaigns creates real meaning in our messaging and emphasises the purpose of Vision Zero.
For example, a regular speed campaign story may begin like this:
‘Police are urging drivers to slow down and drive safely as they embark on a police speeding crackdown today across the county.’
But the same story featuring a victim’s voice would have far more impact:
‘A mother, who tragically lost her son in a road crash, is extending her support to a county-wide police speeding crackdown which kicks off today.’
Bringing real people into our communications is incredibly powerful. This video from the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) in Victoria never fails to move the viewer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2tOye9DKdQ
- Build links with local crash victims and campaigners who have personal stories to share, and invite them to be part of news stories and campaigns. I’ve worked with many bereaved families over the years, who have courageously shared their stories, in the hope that they can prevent others from walking in their shoes
- Contact RoadPeace, the national charity for road crash victims and connect with them on social media, where you will see many blogs and campaigns strengthening victims’ voices. They may be able to put you in touch with crash victims and bereaved family members who are keen to be involved in Vision Zero campaigns and news stories in your area
5. Acknowledge the link between road safety and mental health
With 1 in 4 people experiencing a mental health problem of some kind each year in England,* it’s fair to say that we are in a mental health crisis.
The impact of poor mental health on road safety is profound, influencing cognitive abilities, decision-making, concentration and increasing distraction.
Anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD and other mental health challenges can be debilitating conditions, and sufferers are unable to leave them behind when they close their front doors.
People carry these conditions with them onto the roads, impacting the way they drive, cycle or walk.
Recognising the influence of mental health on road user behaviour is crucial, as it sheds light on the complex link between mental health and road safety.
It also helps us to realise that safer roads partnerships, police and highway authorities can only do so much to alter road user behaviour alone.
This is why the Safe Systems approach to Vision Zero is so important. It recognises that human beings make mistakes, for whatever reason, and they will continue to make mistakes. But our roads should be designed and enforced in a way that minimises the risk of harm to road users when mistakes are made.
Christianne Harrison, a mental health professional and trauma-informed coach, said: “Before getting behind the wheel to drive a vehicle, it is the driver’s responsibility to check the vehicle over, checking tyres, windows, mirrors, fuel levels, water levels, lights and windscreen wipers are functioning etc. How many of us check in with our emotional wellbeing before driving away?
“If our mental health is reacting to a stressful situation, if we feel anxious or angry, this can impair focus, decision-making and reaction times, elevating the risk of crashes.
“A calm and attentive mindset enhances overall driving safety, allowing for better concentration and adaptability to changing road conditions.”
- Publicly address the link between road harm and mental health – incorporate this important issue in communications, where appropriate
- Connect with local and national mental health charities and join forces on campaigns or communications, where possible. Eg: Mind, Mental Health Foundation, Rethink Mental Illness, OCD Action etc
- Check out the work of San Harper at the Guild of Mindful Driver Trainers. San is an Advanced Driving Instructor and Mindfulness and Compassion Teacher, who provides courses and resources that help drivers and trainers better support their own wellbeing, increase resilience and better understand human behaviour
- Check out Brighton & Hove City Council‘s ‘Mind in Gear’ project. Around 40% of road traffic collisions involve “failure to look properly” due to distractions. Distractions aren’t just physical, but can be due to our emotions or what we are thinking about. ‘Mind in Gear,’ urges motorists to use a Mindfulness routine before driving
*MIND, the mental health charity
Rebecca Morris is a road safety marketing and PR specialist with almost 20 years’ experience. She is passionate about influencing public behaviour in order to reduce road deaths and injuries, and contributing to the UK’s efforts to achieve Vision Zero. She is the Director at Vision Zero Communications – helping safer roads partnerships, police forces, highway authorities and private companies to run effective PR and marketing campaigns, as they strive towards Vision Zero. She is also Head of Communications at RoadPeace, the national charity for road crash victims, where she helps to strengthen victims’ voices and raise awareness around road harm.