Vulnerable Road Users and road safety in Europe

By News Editor / Updated: 07 Jul 2017

Significant progress has been made in road transport safety since the early 2000s. The number of road deaths has fallen by 54%. Yet this should not breed complacency: certain road users still face particularly high levels of risk.

Those who do so include pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, and young and older drivers. Referred to as Vulnerable Road Users (VRUs), the statistics evidence this: pedestrians and users of two-wheeled transport account for the same proportion of road deaths as cars (46%). They are particularly exposed in urban areas.

Although previous road safety approaches have sought to and indeed improved VRU safety , they have been vehicle-focused. With ever more people choosing to walk and cycle, this must change.

Understanding road user behaviour

All road users are human. The average driver negotiates traffic habitually, sometimes with little conscious thought. Although driving can be a monotonous activity, constant concentration is required. As research from the EU's SafetyCube project indicates, certain driver behaviours increase the likelihood of accidents occurring: distractions are prevalent causes amongst these.

Yet there exist knowledge gaps, particularly regarding psychological factors, observational errors, and certain distractions. With an International Transport Forum report suggesting that most accidents result from simple errors of judgment or perception, filling these is vitally important.

The UDrive study could contribute to doing so. A large-scale driving study, it analysed 285 participants using cars, trucks, and motorcycles in real traffic conditions. Researchers tracked vehicle and driver behaviour using smart cameras and a specially designed data acquisition system.

Although its results are not yet published, data gathered from UDrive and similar studies can provide insight into distractions and driver interaction with pedestrians and cyclists. In turn, such findings can help public authorities to develop appropriate infrastructure and devise educational programmes to offset driver behaviour that endangers VRUs.

Learning and licensing

A recent study commissioned by DG MOVE provides various training-related suggestions. It recommends the inclusion of lessons that develop "higher order skills", such as low risk acceptance and attentiveness. As the motivation to drive safely cannot really be measured in a practical test, the mentality must be instilled beforehand. Doing so reduces the dangers facing VRUs, and indeed all road users. Hazard perception tests, which increase drivers' observation and risk awareness skills, would also aid this.

Yet knowledge in itself is not enough to change driver behaviour: it must be applied. Graduated driver licensing is an approach designed to ensure this. Its basic principles include a minimum period of time spent learning and on-road practice before obtaining a licence is possible. Post-licence training and probationary periods for new drivers can also help improve safety. A recent proposal to the Commission for the modernisation of professional driver training emphasised VRU protection.

Cyclists must also know how to ride safety. Indeed, they also pose a risk to other road users if they are unable to do so. To imbue this awareness, cycling education should start as soon as possible; ideally it should be included in school curricula. Resources like the manual developed for the Bike Pal project also help to achieve this.

Infrastructure and Intelligent Transport Systems

The environments in which VRUs navigate and interact with traffic also influence their safety. Infrastructure measures such as dedicated cycle lanes and safe crossing points and intersections for pedestrians and cyclists must continue to be implemented, promoted, and integrated into transport plans.

New road safety innovations based around Intelligent Transport Systems can also be integrated into road infrastructure. The VRUITS project tested ten measures, including a Road Side Unit that alerted cyclists and drivers of potential collisions. 80% of oncoming cyclists were detected.

Similar warning systems for pedestrians, as well as active pedestrian safety systems which perform autonomous emergency braking in critical traffic situations, offer great potential. Such concepts are explored in the EU's PROSPECT project. Ideally, all warning systems should be developed in a multimodal way.

The system behind it all

Through improvements like those outlined above, more lives will continue to be saved. Yet these cannot occur in isolation. A holistic transport and road safety policy is required that integrates such measures. All components of the transport 'system' that contribute to accidents must be considered together: road users, vehicles, and the environment. By doing so, evidence-based road safety policy can be developed that reflects reality on the roads. The SafetyCube project is using this approach in the development of its Decision Support System for policymakers.

If this can be achieved, then injuries and fatalities on Europe's roads will continue to decrease. Improvements must be sought as long as the figures for these remain above zero: every single accident and death on Europe's roads is one too many.

Image credit: THINK! Road Safety (on Flickr) by Mikey under CC-BY-2.0.

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