Why it pays for cities to fight road deaths – and how they can get better at it

By Alexandre Santacreu, International Transport Forum

Every minute of every day, someone loses their life in a traffic crash on a city street. With cities growing rapidly and urban motor traffic also increasing dramatically in many cities, the situation is likely to get worse, not better in years to come.

More and more city authorities are realising that dangerous traffic conditions on their streets have a toll that goes beyond the human tragedy and economic loss caused by road deaths and crash injuries. Dangerous traffic makes people feel unsafe, and people who feel unsafe will refrain from doing normal things – letting their children walk to school or cycling to work, for instance.

Four pedestrians waiiting to cross traffic
Waiting to cross traffic (Flickr/Serakatie)

Thus,  a high level of urban road safety is more and more seen as a critical component of a liveable city.  It improves citizens’ quality of life, it increases choices, it opens up opportunities. Ultimately, safer city streets are about enhanced personal freedom.

Safer streets equal more liveable cities

This was recognised in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals in 2016. There, governments agreed (in goal number 11) to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” and as part of that committed to “improving road safety,… with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations”.

The link between the different objectives is easy to spot: improving road safety makes cities not only safer, but also more sustainable because it enables people to walk or cycle without having to fear for their lives. It also makes them more inclusive because those who cannot afford cars can be mobile without running lethal risks.

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But in practical terms, what can mayors and city authorities do to enhance traffic safety in their city? One obvious answer is: Do not reinvent the wheel – learn from what others are already doing. Many good practices for urban road safety exist around the world and only wait to be copied. A second, maybe less obvious answer is: Get your data in shape. Measure what is happening on your streets and how it changes, so you can base policy decisions on evidence, not assumptions.

When cities learn from each other

These two thoughts are the driving ideas behind Safer City Streets, the global traffic safety network for liveable cities. Little more than six months after its launch in October 2016, a total of 38 cities are working together in the Safer City Streets network, ranging  from Astana in Kazhakstan to Zürich in Switzerland and including global metropolises such as New York City, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, London,  Berlin, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Montreal and many others.

Safer City Streets brochure cover page w framThe Safer City Streets network, which holds its first meeting in Paris on 20 and 21 April (with more than 50 participants expected to attend),  provides the first global platform for cities and their road safety experts to exchange experiences and discuss ideas. At the heart of Safer City Streets activity will be efforts to improve the collection of data about urban road crashes to enable cities to compare themselves with others and base policy decisions on reliable evidence. A methodology for the database has already been developed and many of the cities have started feed it in their numbers.

The flying start has been helped by the fact that Safer City Streets itself is building on previous experience: It is modeled on the highly successful International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group (IRTAD), the International Transport Forum’s permanent working group on road safety, which brings together countries and national road safety stakeholders. Fittingly, the annual IRTAD meeting is held back-to-back with the inaugural meeting of Safer City Streets – which will also include a joint workshop with POLIS,  a network of European cities and regions, on how to bring cities from both networks together in order to find the best solutions for data collection.

Cities who are interested in finding out more about Safer City Streets are invited to contact the author. They should also know that membership of  Safer City Streets is currently free, thanks to a very generous grant from the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).

Alexandre Santacreu is a policy analyst for road safety at the International Transport Forum and the project manager of the Safer City Streets network. More information at http://itf-oecd.org/safer-city-streets. This post also appears on OECD Insights.

Are Zero Road Deaths Possible?

safe-system-report-coverBy Hans Michael Kloth, International Transport Forum. This post is jointly published with the OECD Insights blog.

Every year around the globe, 1.25 million people are killed in traffic – about the population of a city like Munich, Stockholm or Dallas. Up to 50 million are seriously injured. Road crashes kill more people than malaria or tuberculosis and are steadily working their way up the top ten causes of death worldwide, forecast to rise from currently ninth place to fifth by 2030. Among the 15 to 29-year olds, they are already the most common cause of death. The human tragedies behind these stark figures are as dramatic as the economic impacts: Road fatalities and serious injuries cost many countries an estimated 2 to 5% of their GDP.

Clearly, this situation is unsustainable. The United Nations’ “Decade of Action for Road Safety”, launched in 2011 with the aim of stabilising the number of road fatalities and then beginning to bring them down by 2020, was an important step to acknowledge that action is required at a global level to stop the daily carnage on the world’s roads. Then, last year, the UN upped the ante by including an even more ambitious road safety target in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Goal 3.6 calls on the international community to halve the number of road deaths and injuries by 2020.

road-deaths-trend-target

But in order to meet this target, more than 400 road deaths would have to be prevented every single day for the next four years; not to even speak of injuries. Yet with the number of cars growing rapidly in many emerging economies, so is the death toll there: Powerful, vehicles on inadequate roads, drivers with little training, inadequate rules and weak enforcement form a deadly mix that is not going to disappear easily.

A reboot for road safety policies

In developed economies, meanwhile, the downward trend that marked the past three decades (and saw the death toll in the UK, for instance, fall in 2015 to almost 20% of the 1966 peak) seems to be coming to an end: Fatality rates in many of the best-performing countries are levelling out and in some cases rising again, notably among vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, cyclists or seniors. A reboot for road safety policy is thus urgently needed, as the approaches that brought success in the past do no longer deliver the returns they once did, or are overwhelmed by an avalanche of cars.

Inspiration comes from a group of countries that have broken with the traditional paradigm in road safety, which is to fix crash hotspots and try to make road users behave more responsibly with a lot of stick and a few carrots. Nations like Sweden or the Netherlands, but also metropolises like New York City, have made it their official policy to try to eradicate road deaths. This approach, known as “Vision Zero”, starts from the premise that the loss of human life as the price for mobility is unacceptable – and that the mobility system should function in a way that poses as little deadly risk as possible.

This approach has been followed for decades in areas like occupational safety, where machinery has long been designed in a “forgiving” way, so that if the operator makes a mistake it will not kill or maim him – think of a circular saw that stops automatically if a limb gets too close for comfort. This “Safe System” approach is not new to transport either – aviation and rail operations would be unthinkable without it, as we would not want a single person’s mistake make a plane crash or trains collide.

Where humans err

Road traffic has yet to embrace the Safe System. Media stories regularly remind us that “human error” was the involved in this or that horror crash. Subtext: While all systems functioned, unfortunately the human didn’t, so there was nothing that could be done. Based on this view, governments spend billions on enforcement and the education of road users. But what is the price tag to get every single citizen to behave correctly all the time? Achieving 100% compliance is of course impossible. Humans make mistakes even if they are well-trained, willing to follow rules and capable of doing so. All of us who have turned our head while at the wheel to see what the kids are doing on the back seats know this to be true.

The Safe System approach that underpins “Vision Zero” accepts that humans will fail. From that principle, the challenge becomes to organise the traffic ecosystem in such a way that human mistakes do not cause serious harm. Here a second principle of the Safe System comes into play: The human body can only absorb a certain amount of kinetic energy before serious injuries occur. Again, a simple truth, too often disregarded. Taken seriously, it has wide implications for speed management, mixing traffic or designing infrastructure.

fig-2-4_conceptualisation-of-the-safe-system

The third principle of the Safe System is shared responsibility. If the aim is to avoid serious harm, it’s just not good enough to blame the driver who hit a tree, or the elderly lady who stepped on the pedestrian crossing without looking. In a Safe System, the agency managing afforestation understands that its actions can have an impact on road safety, as does the urban planner who will foresee speed bumps that force cars to slow down at crosswalks.

Will self-driving cars solve the road safety problem?

The fourth and final guiding principles for traffic as a Safe System is as straightforward: You cannot address road safety piecemeal. All parts of the system need to interlock to reinforce each other, so that when one part fails in the chain of events leading to a serious incident, the others will still protect humans from injury or worse.

Technology will go a long way to make road traffic safer. Alco locks, automatic braking, intelligent speed assistance, electronic stability control and the like will make lethal errors less likely, no doubt. Self-driving cars, many hope, will solve the road safety problem by making error-prone human drivers superfluous. But autonomous driving is not a silver bullet. Forecasts put sales of self-driving vehicles at 11.8 million or about 2.7% of the global car fleet in 2035. And the vast majority will be sold in developed world, while fully 90% of road fatalities occur in low- and middle-income countries. The impact of self-driving cars on road safety will hardly be noticeable for another generation or more

There are other misconceptions about how Vision Zero works. It does not mean, for instance, that there will be no more crashes. There might even be more, because the Safe System is focused on avoiding serious injuries, not necessarily accidents. Take roundabouts: It is not rare that there are more collisions at roundabouts than at standard intersections. But because they rarely involve impacts at a 90-degree angle and occur at lower speeds, far fewer severe injuries result.

Ultimately, can there really ever be zero road deaths? On a global level, probably not. But looking at individual segments it is already happening: There are at least three European cities with more than 250 000 inhabitants that have not had a single road fatality in over a year, according to German safety specialist Dekra. In Sweden, not a single child was killed in a bicycle accident in 2008. On this level, zero road deaths as a target is not utopian – and then: if it can be done for one group or region or car make, it can probably also be done for others as well. If governments take the political lead and bring all those together who can and should make it happen, it can work.

Let’s give the Safe System a chance to save lives.

pm logo and strap_newThe International Transport Forum (ITF) at the OECD recently published “Zero Road Deaths and Serious Injuries: Leading a Paradigm Shift to a Safe System” (2016), which reviews the experiences of countries that have adopted Vision Zero and the Safe System and provides guidance for leaders who seek to drastically reduce road deaths in their communities. For this report and its global road safety work the ITF is today being awarded a Prince Michael of Kent International Road Safety Award.

 

Driving from a distance

How remote-controlled trucks could pave the way towards fully automated driving

José Viegas, Secretary-General, International Transport Forum

driving-distance-remote-controlled-trucksAre we going to be comfortable letting go of the steering wheel? Many car makers and technology companies are betting on it. A flurry of recent announcements is predicting that driverless cars and taxis will be on our cities streets within five years. Uber just began a pilot of self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh, Tesla’s latest business plan clearly targets “fully self-driving” vehicles, and Ford is gearing up for mass market driverless car production by 2021.

Much less media attention has been devoted to a related issue: the possibility that driverless trucks will soon be roaming our roads. For this scenario the key question is a slightly different one: Are we ready to share the roads with dozens of tonnes of steel when there is no human in charge?

Once it becomes available, the operating flexibility and cost reductions from driverless operations offer trucking companies and their customers a strong carrot for its adoption. The International Transport Forum estimates that on long-distance routes driverless trucks could be operated with a cost advantage of 30% or more compared to conventional manned trucks. The advantages for hauliers are obvious: Drivers represent the biggest chunk of operational costs and at the same time a constraint on using trucks at full capacity – they do need breaks to rest, after all. Taking humans from the cabin means trucks could operate all day and night without having to stop, except for refuelling.

When machines take over

There are many issues that need to be solved before driverless technology can be cleared for use on public roads. Some are technical and need to be resolved by engineers and computer scientists. Others are public policy issues: Governments need to make the call as to when the machines can take over. This involves deciding how and when driverless truck systems demonstrate lower (real and perceived) risks of crashes than the current situation with humans doing the driving – and especially that they do not fail in situations that humans would normally handle well.

No driving system can ever be 100 per cent safe, whether humans or computerised systems are in charge. But in well-defined situations – for instance on motorways, where there is no crossing traffic and speeds are similar – automation technology may soon safely handle driving tasks for 99.9% or even 99.99% of driving time. But can there be a clear-cut percentage or success rate for allowing operation without a driver in the cabin that would satisfy the safety concerns of regulators (or of road users, for that matter)?

In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently published guidelines on automated vehicles. These provide an early indication about how it will judge when the machines are ready to take over. The US approach appears to be that driverless vehicle developers will be required to set out clearly how their vehicles respond to given situations (such as a loss of communications) and how they comply with each road rule.

A matter of feelings

Yet accepting robot trucks is not solely about rule compliance and crash probabilities. It also has a highly subjective dimension. That humans systematically overestimate their own driving skills is a well-documented fact. The result of this, among other factors, is 1.25 million road deaths every year on the world’s roads. Objectively, machines will probably be able to do better soon. Yet public acceptance may well depend more on how people would feel if they heard on the news that a 32-tonne semi-trailer with no human driver in the cabin had been involved in a fatal crash. Regardless of the actual crash performance of driverless trucks, the idea might well be scuttled if the public’s perception is dominated by unease, fed by rare but highly publicised crashes.

It is thus worth thinking about ways to move towards driverless trucks and the benefits they provide while reassuring the community that machines haven’t taken over. Three options warrant consideration.

The first is so-called platooning. In a truck platoon, several vehicles form a closely-spaced convoy in which only the lead truck has a human driver who navigates traffic. The following trucks are linked to the lead truck by wireless data links and automatically maintain a safe distance with the vehicle in front. If the trailing vehicles were allowed to operate without driver, quite significant cost savings would be possible. Although platooning has received a great deal of attention, e.g. from the European Union, the need to co-ordinate drivers and vehicles may make it less attractive than fully automated driving. Controlling “centipede” configurations of vehicles will also introduce new challenges for truck drivers as well as the other drivers on the same road.

Handing over control

A second transition option is that of part-time human control: Drivers remain obligatory on all trucks, but their role is reduced to taking over from computerised systems when unexpectedly difficult driving situations arise. Such passive driving technology is well-advanced: Truck manufacturer Daimler is testing driver-assisted automated trucks on the highways of Nevada in the US.

This will help build experience with autonomous driving, yet the approach also has its limitations. Most importantly, the hand-over between machine and human is particularly risky. The driver still needs to pay full attention and be ready to act at all times – so while his task may be less strenuous, he will still need rest. With machines in charge most of the time, there is of course the risk the driver will not always be ready to take over quickly enough. Not least, the need to have drivers on board means there is no significant reduction of operating costs, making this option less attractive to hauliers.

A third option is remote driving. Imagine control rooms where professional drivers are set up in a cabin-like environment that closely mimics the information and tools available in a real truck. These drivers would remotely monitor and control a number of otherwise self-driving trucks and intervene, taking manual control of steering, indicating, accelerating and braking, when and where needed. The relatively low complexity of driving on a motorway would make it possible to operate a fleet of trucks with a much lower number of drivers than that of the trucks under their control.

Truck driving as an office job

What sounds like science-fiction is already being tested in the real world, albeit in different contexts. Drones are just the most obvious example: the US Navy is currently in advanced tests of a remotely controlled fighter jet. In maritime shipping, Rolls Royce is working on freight ships controlled from land. In Australia, enormous trucks operating in the iron ore mines of Western Australia are being controlled by drivers in a centre 1 200 kilometres away. In the Netherlands, the remote control room approach is being used for the operation of low-speed driverless WEpod minibuses that operate on the five-kilometre route between the University of Wageningen and the city of Ede. And an Estonian firm is testing small robot vehicles for urban delivery in Washington, London and Hamburg that will be overseen from a control room in Tallinn, thousands of kilometres away.

Driving from a control room has obvious advantages. For the driver, trucking becomes a regular office job similar to that of an air traffic controller. Rather than having to sleep in the truck cabin somewhere in a parking area with no facilities, he can go home to the family at the end of the day. Compared to full automation, the remote driving approach also ensures some continuity of skills, as the best truck drivers redeploy to control centres that offer more stable and comfortable job conditions.

Herding trucks like sheep

In the control room, remote drivers would be alerted by the on-board systems when difficult situations arise on road in which computers perform less well than humans – such as bad weather that hampers sensors, or ambiguous situations a computer cannot easily adjudicate. Initially, the threshold for human intervention would be set low, but with growing experience and self-learning systems it could be raised to a level where the control centre steps in less and less.

A control room (perhaps owned by a truck manufacturer) could begin trials with a high ratio of drivers to trucks, even one-to-one. It would collect data (and share it with the regulator) on how often and under what circumstances drivers have to take over (and how often this occurs simultaneously). If the data shows that interventions from the control centre are sufficiently rare, its operator could gain regulatory approval to gradually bring more trucks under the control of each remote fall-back driver, depending on the risk aversion of the regulator.

Finally, remote controlling does not require the co-ordination of trucks as in the platooning approach; it could be operated anywhere with suitable communications coverage. This raises the challenge for control room operators: They will need to invest in the facilities, on-board systems and communication technology necessary to support remote interventions in a given area. As one-to-one remote operation would not be profitable (but a likely first step), investors would need to be confident that regulators will allow higher truck/driver ratios once safe performance has been demonstrated. But for vehicle manufacturers, the investment as such is easily within their means. And given the cost reduction and performance increase they would offer, the potential demand for remote-controlled trucks is evident.

A feasible path

The control centre model for driverless trucking on motorways seems to be a feasible path towards fully-automated trucks. It would also be directly applicable to other areas currently relying on professional drivers, such as taxis and buses. The significant cost savings would be attractive to operators, while the availability of drivers as a fall back in case of system failures could allay concerns about giving full responsibility to a robot.

If we knew that a highly skilled human driver was always ready at a moment’s notice to take control of the vehicle, wouldn’t we be more willing to share the road with it?