No fatalities: Vision Zero

Road accidents are responsible for more deaths worldwide than wars and epidemics. Technical advances in vehicle engineering could in future put a stop to these fatalities, but from a global perspective this goal still seems to be a long way off.

Road accidents are responsible for more deaths worldwide than wars and epidemics. (Picture: Getty Images)

No war or epidemic is claiming as many victims worldwide as road traffic. Image: Getty Images

Vision Zero sounds like an admirable objective. If the EU Commission has its way, by 2050 there will be no more serious injuries and certainly no more fatalities on the roads of the European Union. The vehicle manufacturer Volvo aims to ensure that no one is killed in its vehicles (or at least the new ones) by 2020. The city of Vienna has also put in place its own safety program with the intention of eliminating road deaths within five years.

Is this just wishful thinking or do plans of this kind have a real chance of success? A number of cities in Europe, the US and Japan have already had no fatalities in single years between 2009 and 2012, including major cities such as Nottingham, Aachen and Salzburg. The question is — and statistics cannot provide a complete answer — whether it was simply luck that there have been no major accidents in these cities over a certain period.

Stagnation at a high level 

The fact is that the number of fatalities on the roads has already fallen drastically. In 1970, around 20,000 people died in Germany in traffic accidents and, despite a signifi cant increase in the volume of traffic, the fi gure today is between 3,000 and 4,000. In 2014, there were 25,700 road deaths in the European Union, while in 1991 there were almost 80,000 and there were also fewer member states. Recently, the number of accident victims has more or less stagnated, which gives rise to the question of whether the potential of safety systems has been exhausted. The automotive and supplier industries certainly do not give that impression.

Road users are, of course, not only the people traveling relatively safely in cars. Pedestrians and cyclists who have accidents are also included in the statistics. In 2012, 20 percent of the accidents where injuries were caused involved these groups. Eight percent of accident victims were motorcyclists. Cars were responsible for the
largest proportion of accidents at 64 percent. But regardless of your means of transport, you are at greatest risk of dying on rural roads. According to the German Federal Statistical Offi ce, this is where around 60 percent of fatal accidents happen.

Only 11 percent of fatalities are the result of freeway crashes, which means that the fastest roads are also the safest. Car drivers on urban roads are in the safest situation as a result of the low speeds, while pedestrians and cyclists are much more likely to be injured in this setting, simply because people move about much more often on foot and on bicycles in cities. Diff erent accident characteristics in different cities are due to people’s transport habits. For example, in cities with a warm climate, such as Rome or Athens, more people use mopeds than in Berlin, where the weather is relatively cool.

Major differences within Europe 

Despite generally high standards and good road conditions, the frequency of accidents and the risks of dying diff er dramatically within the European Union. While in Sweden there are only three road fatalities each year for every 100,000 inhabitants, the fi gure in Greece, which fi nds itself at the bottom of the list, is 12.2. Countries such as Poland (11.8), Portugal (11.8), and Romania (11.1) are also towards the lower end of the EU accident scale. Some of the reasons for this are easy to understand. It is a well-known fact that well-constructed freeways with crash barriers are among the safest roads. In Romania, for example, the proportion of freeways is very low. The overall road network amounts to around 200,000 km, of which only 283 km are freeways (2013).

In contrast, Germany has 644,000 km of roads with almost 13,000 km of freeways and is in second place in the EU behind Spain (13,500 km). Road surfaces also play a role, along with the lighting, signs, and safety features. Badly signed intersections and crossroads (instead of roundabouts) have a negative impact. In addition, the mentality of drivers and the traffic monitoring systems aff ect the frequency of risks and accidents, for example, factors such as alcohol consumption and driving style.

The topography of the country may also make a contribution, so the Netherlands, a fl at country where traffic is heavily monitored (3.9 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants), is near the top of the rankings, while Austria has 6.6 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Sweden has strict speed limits (110 km/h on the freeway) and the speeding fi nes are substantial. Among the larger countries, Germany, which has no upper speed limit and 4.7 deaths per 100,000, is one of the safest countries in the world and is among the top ten with the lowest number of fatalities.

Global discrepancies 

However, from a global perspective, even the poorest-performing EU countries are in an excellent position. In countries such as the Dominican Republic (41.7 road deaths per 100,000), Thailand (38.1), and Venezuela (37.2) driving is much more dangerous. There are many reasons for this, but alongside the high proportion of twowheeled transport and, in many cases, the chaotic conditions on the roads, the equipment in the cars plays a major role. With 11.4 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants, the USA’s fi gures are far from impressive.

This is probably partly due to the lower rate of safety belt use than in other industrialized countries. In Germany, where safety belt usage has reached 98 percent (in the front seats), wearing a belt is taken for granted. In addition, almost all cars have ABS. Throughout the EU, new cars must now be equipped with electronic stability control (ESC).

And to go back to Vision Zero, how can we achieve a goal of this kind? It is clear that it is not possible without effective assistance systems. But at least two other factors are important in this respect. It will be difficult to reduce the number of road deaths to zero without preventing drink-driving and clamping down on infringements of traffic regulations. It is essential to remember that however good the assistance systems are they can only function within physical limits. If a drunken pedestrian jumps out of the undergrowth onto a rural road at night, while at the same moment a car roars past at high speed, the braking distance will be too short, even with a high-performance autonomous system.

One possible scenario would be to restrict cars to the permitted maximum speed for the type of road in question. But the lack of safety reserves (for example when overtaking) would have the eff ect of reducing safety levels. When cars are more eff ectively networked with one another, it could be possible to ban critical overtaking maneuvers. There will be a lot of lively discussions on this subject in the years to come, in particular between consumers and vehicle manufacturers.

Acceptance problems for safety-related interventions 

Many modern mass-produced cars are already equipped with autonomous braking systems. Depending on the technical design of the systems, today’s sensors are able to detect vehicles and even pedestrians on the road ahead and, if necessary, to bring the car to a standstill independently. It goes without saying that the trend for increasing automation in cars can no longer be reversed.

This is remarkable given that many car drivers are skeptical about the latest developments. In the same way as with the speed limit, many of those surveyed say that they do not want to have decisions made for them when driving. But the development engineers wave these objections aside. They claim that they are only relieving drivers of unpleasant tasks, such as boring freeway driving, stop-and-go traffic, and narrow city streets.

However, autonomous driving in urban areas is still very much a thing of the future. Mass-produced cars do not yet have the computing power or the sophisticated sensors to handle complex junctions. As things currently stand, it is diffi cult to imagine a car driving up to a crosswalk and making independent decisions about whether people nearby are about to cross the road or not. It is the fi ne-tuning that is currently lacking, and this is the essential feature.

As far as the basic principles of controlling a vehicle are concerned, autonomous driving is already possible. Independent acceleration and braking have been around for several years and autonomous steering arrived with the popular parking assistant systems. There is a still a great deal of potential for developing and refi ning the systems, but their current performance is already impressive. A wide range of cameras, laser scanners, and short- and long-range radar modules, together with all-round ultrasound, are the features that ensure the safety of cars currently on the market.

One interesting aspect is that the demand for assistance systems is greatest in Europe. A study by Roland Berger Strategy Consultants showed that the sales volumes of the crucial assistance systems amounted to 1.3 billion euros in Europe in 2013, while in Asia, including China, Japan, and Korea, the fi gure was only 1.1 billion and in North America only 0.9 billion in the same period. The forecasts indicate that by 2020 the gap between the various markets will increase. The annual volume for Europe is predicted to be 5.3 billion euros, with Asia (3.8 billion) and North America (3.1 billion) lagging signifi cantly behind.

Although driver assistance systems are obviously being used in Europe, a variety of studies show that there is relatively little interest in the option of driving by autopilot, at least on certain routes. Around 54 percent of participants in a survey held among readers of the German magazine “auto, motor und sport” in 2014 felt that this new technology would become widespread, but 64 percent of the car fans surveyed said that they had little or no interest in autonomous driving.

More pragmatic drivers are rather more open to the new technology. In August, German news magazine “Der Spiegel” (no. 34/2015) published the results of a survey by the company puls Marktforschung, which showed that 43 percent of respondents could conceive of partially autonomous driving. In the same way that technological progress and conviction are prompting manufacturers to make driving even safer, car companies are also determined to off er customers emotionally appealing products in future. These include sedans with top-of-the-range engines and sports cars.

Digital security in cars 

In addition to passive and active safety, the classic disciplines in vehicle manufacturing, developers will in future have to take into consideration how to protect cars against attacks by hackers. As modern cars now have Internet access, it is possible for cars to be controlled remotely. The two computer specialists Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek have recently demonstrated that this is possible by applying the brakes on a Jeep Cherokee over the net.

If the system can brake independently, the brakes can also be applied via digital controls by someone acting externally. Therefore, driver assistance systems are, on the one hand, an important means of further reducing the risk of accidents on the roads, but, on the other hand, they also give rise to new questions and challenges which need to be answered by the mobile human. And as the next generation grows up, they as digital natives will place diff erent demands on cars from the generation of drivers before them.

Global accident statistics

Road accidents are responsible for more deaths worldwide than wars and epidemics. (Picture: DEKRA)

(Picture: DEKRA)

Fewer people die of the Ebola virus in Africa and in the dreadful conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine every year than on our roads. The annual road death rate is roughly the same as the population of large cities such as Milan, Prague, or Cologne. But the differences around the world are huge and depend on the condition of the road network, population density, and standards of technology, politics, and, most importantly, medicine.

Europe is in a comparatively good position. There are already hundreds of cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants that have achieved Vision Zero, in other words, no deaths on the roads in at least one year. The expert organization DEKRA sees this as an encouraging sign that Vision Zero will not remain a distant Utopia. With its technical vehicle inspection services and accident research, DEKRA makes an active contribution to reducing the number of accident victims.

Here you find our current edition of DEKRA solutions as online version.

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