If a terrorist organisation threatened annually to kill and seriously injure 33 thousand British citizens over ten years you would think that the Government would do everything it could to prevent such an atrocity. Tragically that is the appalling scale of human misery that road crashes are likely to cause on our roads to 2030. A powerful contributor to reducing this toll is to ensure that the UK maintains world class vehicle safety standards. Unfortunately, however, Britain is now in the slow lane on vehicle safety. The Department of Transport (DfT) has dithered and delayed on an upgrade of our type approval regulations that will cost lives if action is not taken soon. That is why I hope the new Secretary for Transport Anne-Mare Trevelyan will make applying global best practice in vehicle standards a major priority of the UK’s forthcoming revised road safety strategy.
Britain’s step backwards on vehicle regulation is due to Brexit and the failure of the DfT to fully replicate the European Union (EU) safety requirements applied to both passenger cars and commercial vehicles sold on the UK market. The referendum was held six years ago and we have been outside the EU for more than two years. So there has been ample time to put in place a new UK system of type approval. Crucially the starting point should be the same level of safety offered by the EU. During the referendum campaign advocates for the Leave campaign reassured the public that Brexit would not weaken levels of consumer protection. But unfortunately that is happening now.
In 2019 the EU adopted a new package of vehicle standards grouped together in the General Safety Regulation (GSR). Since July this year it has begun to be implemented and includes, inter alia, intelligent speed assistance, autonomous emergency braking, better crash test standards, and improved truck visibility to reduce blind spots1. The UK was still a member of the EU when the GSR was adopted and both the Government and British Members of the European Parliament took part in the legislative process. Arguably, therefore, there is a duty to apply these standards which were agreed before the UK’s withdrawal date.
According to the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory the GSR has the potential to have a greater safety benefit than the introduction of seat belts. They estimate that in the UK over the next 15 years it could prevent 1,762 deaths and 15,000 injuries, and deliver £7 billion in net economic benefits. That is why in February a cross party group of six former road safety ministers wrote to the then Secretary of State, Grant Schapps urging him to adopt the GSR in full adding that it is “the single most important thing you can do now to reduce deaths and injuries on UK roads”2.
It is frankly scandalous that the DfT is still undecided what to do. The GSR risks becoming a ritual sacrifice on the altar of ‘Brexit Opportunities’ as Ministers put divergence from the EU ahead of the safety of Britain’s road users. Surely any responsible post-Brexit government should judge the merits of the GSR not on the opportunity to diverge from the EU but on its potential to save lives?
Divergence is not just bad for road safety but also damaging to industry and innovation. The failure to align with the GSR will undermine UK leadership in promoting the future deployment of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) which although in their infancy will eventually transform mobility as advanced vehicle safety systems become increasingly automated. Furthermore the UK car industry has repeatedly expressed its strong preference to reman aligned with EU regulations. That is because more than 50% of UK automobile production is sold in the EU. So most of the SMMT’s output – also including vehicles sold in Northern Ireland – will have to meet the new EU regulations anyway. So if you want to be sure that your next car is as safe as possible order it from a dealer in Belfast!
This absurd situation is not inevitable.