Thursday 29 September 2016

Road deaths are likely to rise in step with the economy

Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30

‘1972 was the bloodiest year of Northern Ireland’s Troubles — and it was also the bloodiest year on the Republic’s roads...’
‘1972 was the bloodiest year of Northern Ireland’s Troubles — and it was also the bloodiest year on the Republic’s roads...’

Economics is a powerful explanatory tool. As the authors of the Freakonomics series of books have shown, thinking about many issues and problems from an economics perspective can improve understanding of them. As importantly, if not more importantly, it can improve the way socials ills are addressed and made less damaging.

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Road safety is not something that is often considered from an economics perspective, but it should be. The uptick in fatalities on Irish roads since the depth of the recession in 2012 is closely linked to the upturn in the economy. But before looking at that link more closely, and what might be done to halt the increase in deaths, it is worth noting just how much has been achieved in road safety over the decades.

Although it is well-known that 1972 was the bloodiest year of Northern Ireland's Troubles, it is less well known that it was also the bloodiest year ever on the Republic's roads, as the first chart illustrates. In that year 640 people lost their lives in road traffic incidents, the culmination of a rapid rise from the time records were first kept in 1959 (reflecting hugely increased car ownership).

Since then, mercifully, there has been an astonishing decline, reaching a low of 162 in 2012. Because the population has grown for much of that period, the decline in the per capita rate of fatalities has been even greater and is now around half the average rate across the OECD. One's chance of dying in a traffic incident in the Republic is now just one-fifth of what it was in the early 1970s.

As is clear from the first graph, the period of sharpest decline in the rate of fatalities was in the economically depressed 1980s and in the recent post-crash era. Although many non-economic factors were also at play, the role of changes in the economy has been significant, just like it has been across most of the developed world - as set out in a fascinating new report*.

It has long been noticed that setbacks in economic growth are often accompanied by falls in road deaths. A substantial majority of studies indicate that, other things being equal, road safety improves when economic times are hard and worsens when times are good. This effect appears to have occurred in most OECD countries during the financial crisis, with the report suggesting that up to two-thirds of the decrease in mortality was down to the economy.

Ireland is no exception, even if the correlation is a bit weaker.

Poor economic performance can improve road safety in a number of ways. A fundamental feature is that the volume of traffic decreases. When unemployment is up there are fewer commuters. As household budgets are constrained, people travel less by car. Moreover, lower economic activity reduces the amount of business, construction and haulage vehicles on the roads. Fewer vehicles on the roads lowers the probability of getting caught up in an accident. Driver behaviour is also influenced by economic conditions. The incidence of driving under the influence falls when the tightening of purse strings limits spare cash for drinking and getting high. (There has, for instance, been a halving of public order offences since the crash, which is in part attributable to lower consumption of booze and drugs.)

Young people, particularly men, have a disproportionate risk of road accidents and deaths. And recessions hurt this cohort the most, with the young more likely to be unemployed and struggle when entering the labour market. While obviously not desirable in the grand scheme of things, the report notes that road deaths may fall in times of recession because there are fewer young adults on the road. That has certainly been the case in Ireland in recent years. People are also likely to drive more carefully when money is tight in order to avoid costly accidents, and more slowly to save fuel.

However, downturns can increase risks too. There is less spending available for road maintenance, emergency and police services. The average vehicle on the road becomes older as new car sales drop, diminishing the roadworthiness of the average vehicles. That said, overall, the evidence suggests that this is offset by the factors mentioned previously.

Economics, of course, is only part of the explanation. There have been many factors making roads safer, particularly in the developed world; you can see the decline of road deaths in OECD countries and in Ireland in the second graph.

Engineering and technology have made vehicles more durable and resilient to crashes. Lives have doubtlessly been saved by requirements for cars to include features such as seat belts for all passengers and air bags. Big improvements in emergency services and trauma care make surviving an accident more likely.

The big decline in Irish road deaths in the past decade, which has been far greater than the OECD average, is partly due to the unusually deep recession. But investments and policies during the latter part of the boom mattered too. The massive capital programmes in the road infrastructure are still with us. The obligatory testing of cars' roadworthiness, introduced in 2000, may have mitigated the negative effects of fewer newer cars on the road once the recession hit. The introduction of speed cameras and penalty points must have helped as well.

Through advertising, education and enforcement, the wearing of seat belts has increased substantially since the early 1990s when only half of people wore them. Even as late as 2005 only 26pc of adults wore them in rear seats; in 2012 it was 89pc.

Finally, a cultural change has made drink-driving less acceptable. In 2001, less than one-third of people agreed with the statement that you should never drink and drive. In 2011, a similar survey found 95pc in agreement. And laws have steadily become stricter, with random breath tests introduced in 2006. Many road safety campaigners wish to see the use of mobile phones or other devices when driving to soon be equally as unacceptable.

Regardless of the progress that has been made, the rise in the number of fatalities since 2012 gives cause for concern. With the economy recovering and the international evidence outlined above, there is no room for complacency.

The OECD report recommends that policy makers target the specific mechanisms that cause increase in road deaths, whether it be young drivers, heavy goods vehicles or something else. If the State coffers continue to improve, the next government will have more resources at its disposal. And the correlation between road deaths and economic growth may justify giving more resources to bodies such as the Garda Traffic Corps.

There are broader measures too, such as improving enforcement. The controversies over penalty points illustrate that work needs to be done, as does the recent revelation that people before the courts on drink-driving charges may escape conviction more frequently than in our neighbouring jurisdiction.

Every life lost in a road accident is a tragedy. Behind the statistics are families and loved ones. Road safety deserves even more attention than it already gets as a stronger economy brings with it a seemingly inevitable downside.

*http://www.internationaltransportforum.org/Pub/new.html#15IRTADEconomy

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