We simply are looking in the wrong place about road “safety”, says Andy Graham

I’ve been looking at current accident trends across the world and how they will be impacted by connected and self-driving vehicles. There’s no doubt that technology can reduce errors made by drivers, but many of the headline figures assume that all accidents are caused by driver error.

The way an accident occurs is like a lump of Swiss cheese – there are lots of holes that are causal factors but they must align to get an accident. If you fill one hole, there will be no accident (or a different type of accident).

Many of the current holes might already be filled by the time self-driving cars are widespread, through better human-driven cars with automatic emergency braking, better enforcement of factors such as mobile phone use while driving, better road engineering and better education. Newer, ultimately safer cars will replace those older cars often driven by young drivers, especially with the leasing deals available now. I can get a connected Vauxhall Astra for less than my first mobile phone bill cost a month.

While in the UK the headline number of fatalities remains constant, the accident rate is dropping because of traffic growth. This statistical nicety doesn’t help if a loved one is killed or injured, because every life matters, but focusing on absolute headlines often hides trends.

Some of the Swiss cheese holes might also be filled in by drivers changing behaviour – for example over speeding – through factors such as insurance, fuel cost etc. Another key area is those accidents where humans were involved but didn’t make errors while driving. Looking at UK statistics, a fair slice of accidents involved defective tyres or running out of fuel. While Mobility as a Service might impact these, won’t the owners of self-driving vehicles also expect them to self-maintain too?

I doubt that the spectacular accident claims for self-driving vehicles will occur, as some of the accidents they hope to solve will have already been reduced and there are then other factors (not least the penetration of self-driving vehicles) that will have an impact.

Where we are still not looking is the deaths from emissions. Whatever study you look at, whatever expert looks at the data, whatever you define as “early death”, emissions from vehicles in countries like the UK are killing far more people per year than the vehicles do. For the UK, I have seen estimates of 23,500 early deaths per year versus 1732 from vehicle accidents. That’s a factor of 13. Even if the estimate is out by a decimal point, that’s still far more human beings dying from the stuff that comes out of the vehicle’s tailpipe than a vehicle hitting them.

So why don’t we change this focus from road safety to overall health? It is simple. If you die in a road accident, it is in the media. There will be a big impact on others, say those passing the accident and seeing blue lights. Then there will be flowers at the roadside, an inquest, your accident will be analysed in detail and subsequently added to knowledge that helps improvement. And it all happens in fast time, i.e. an accident today is reported today and has an impact on everyone.

In contrast, if you die in a few years from what you breathe in today, it will be in a hospital or hospice from a generic disease such as “respiratory failure” or (as yet to be fully proved) dementia. Only your friends and family will really be aware, and the real cause of your death won’t be investigated, as it could have been years ago. And in the meantime, the cost of your care for slowly deteriorating health could add up either for your nation or your insurance company.

There is also a paradox here, in that you personally might invest and care about safety for your family – high Euro NCAP-rated car, cycling helmet and visible clothing, waiting for the green man at crossings, but still be impacted by the dirty engine around you. I did note that the latest Volvo model detects poor air quality in the cabin and shuts off the air vents, which is a start (and a great connected vehicles emission sensor – can I have your data please Volvo?). So we have a ticking timebomb of deaths yet to occur, and many more in the future, but because they aren’t today’s problems we focus on other matters. This just seems wrong.

Some cities, like London and Paris, are taking active steps. Paris now bans older cars from entry between 8am and 8pm and requires a vignette to show your vehicle’s emissions class. This is a bold political step from a place with a diesel building car industry and is to be applauded. London will probably introduce a new emissions charge soon and other cities will likely follow.

The automotive industry is also taking steps, although the trust in that area has eroded due to the various emissions scandals of which I think we have only seen the tip of the iceberg so far. Electric vehicles and very efficient clean hybrids will help, but various experts I speak to think all we may be doing here is replacing clean newer cars with even cleaner even newer cars. I was impressed however to get a Tesla taxi at Schiphol in Amsterdam this week rather than the ubiquitous diesel they used to offer. That’s a big cost to someone though…

One key area of concern is the Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF). This is the thing in your exhaust that traps soot and should “burn it off”. Except many diesels suffer as the filter gets clogged due to not being driven for long enough trips – like short city hops. When this goes wrong it is expensive to replace in older cars, so often it is just removed by owners and mechanics (there are vast numbers of videos on YouTube that show you how to do this). This avoids that yellow engine warning light that will fail your annual test for older cars. And if it isn’t removed, a clogged DPF isn’t good for your engine or the environment. The way to stop the damage is to go for a good long drive and don’t change the gears up so quickly – let the engine get warm. This trick was taught to me by a motoring club roadside mechanic who said that DPF faults are one of the key jobs he gets called to and are also the easiest to fix.

To be fair to the memory of Herr Diesel, a fine man of strong principles, all the dirt isn’t just from engines. Brake dust, tyre rubber and soot from petrol engines also contribute. And some work in the Netherlands suggests broken up road surface asphalt due to vehicles braking at stop lines may also be a contributor. This is often caused by heavy trucks, but as you were all awake in that lecture that said the pavement damage to the road was the 4th power of axle weight you already know that, right?

So it seems we have an issue with older, dirtier diesels and stopping vehicles of all types (even pure electric). What can we do about that? Well we can ban old, dirty vehicles in city centres with suitable exceptions for heritage and veteran vehicles with limited miles, encourage scrapping of older high-use vehicles like taxis to be replaced by LEVs, and charge for access based on emissions. This often impacts poorer people who cannot afford new clean vehicles, but the leasing model of vehicles and Mobility as a Service offers some alternatives to purchase.

We should also think about the vehicle’s emissions now, not when the vehicle was built. I’ve been doing some research into what the OBD2 port can tell about the health of an engine. After all, it was designed to identify and fix engine faults. Some work by Imperial College shows a real potential to talk to an older vehicle and ask “tell me if you are clean enough today to enter my city – no engine light problems and your DPF is still there”. Vehicles built before 1994 won’t be able to do this so will be charged excess.

As well as this, we need to rethink how we control traffic. We currently run to minimise delay, but maybe we should reconfigure our systems to minimise stops. Especially for heavy trucks off peak, which would also help with noise pollution and fuel consumption and allow more reliable deliveries to a city. Even when we get full electric trucks they will still need brakes and tyres. Let’s think of the whole system.

There will be many more ideas than those I have set out above, but if we take a health-based view, not an accident-based view, we need to take some hard decisions and actions about older, dirtier vehicles and not simply not focus on the future cleaner and, probably, safer ones.

Andy Graham is principal of White Willow Consulting