Speech to RSS 2022 Athens

Dear Minister Mr Karamanlis, dear Mr Mayor Mr Bakoyannis, Ladies and Gentleman, I am very grateful for the invitation from my good friend Professor George Yannis to give a keynote address to the 2022 RSS Conference. It is a such a pleasure to be back in Athens again. My wife is half Greek, from the wonderful island of Crete, which we visit every year. So, an offer to come to Athens is also a great pleasure for me. And especially as it gives me an opportunity to recognize Greece’s recent achievements on road safety. 

Over the last decade road fatalities here have more than halved, making Greece the only European Union Member State to exceed the target to halve road deaths by 2020. As a result last year Greece won the European Transport Safety Council’s prestigious road safety performance index award. And it is very pleasing to see that this success is supported by high level political support for action to further reduce the avoidable and tragic fatalities on the country’s roads.  

For example, the Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis last year launched Greece’s new national road safety plan. A similar leadership role has also been demonstrated at a European level by the Greek Member of the European Parliament Elena Kountera, who has led the endorsement of the European Union’s new ten year road safety strategy with a new target to halve road deaths and serious injuries by 2030. There has also been strong local action too. This year, for example, the winner of the EU’s 2022 Urban Road Safety Award I’m delighted to report was the city of Rethymno in Crete!  

Leadership of this kind will be essential for Greece to sustain its recent impressive road safety performance. Of course, we know that a significant part of the reduction in road deaths has been caused by Greece’s economic crisis and the COVID 19 pandemic. As the country steadily recovers from both these deeply debilitating events, it certainly will be very challenging to meet the new #50by30 target.  I am only too aware of this, as tragically a member of my wife’s extended family lost his life in a motorcycle crash in Crete just a few months ago*. To avoid such terrible suffering and loss for so many families there can be no letting up in the task of making Greek roads safe.

Around 500 BC the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said: “No man ever steps into the same river twice, for its not same river and he’s not the same man”.  And for sure modern mobility is like a constantly changing river that as it flows always throws up new road safety challenges. Ten years ago, for example, cities were not confronted by the risks and opportunities represented by e-scooters. In an age of remarkable technology transition in transport systems there are always new issues to be tackled, new injury threats, but also new ways to improve safety.   

I am cautiously optimistic that Greece, the EU, and the world, can achieve a 50% reduction in road deaths and serious injuries by 2030. And I am proud that it was the Towards Zero Foundation that led the effort to secure a new global #50by30 target. This campaign was launched at a major conference of road safety NGOs in April 2019 held in Chania, Crete, of course! Subsequently this target was endorsed by the 3rd Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety held in Stockholm in 2020, and then endorsed a few months later by the UN General Assembly. And I was, of course, delighted that the effectiveness of our #50by30 campaign was recognized when it won the 2020 Premier Prince Michael of Kent International Road Safety Award.  

My optimism that we can reach the #50by30 target, is based on the fact that today we have more knowledge about effective road injury prevention than ever before. And we also have clear plans included in the EU Road Safety Strategy and in the Global Plan for the Decade of Action to 2030. Both these policy frameworks are based on the Safe Systems Approach which takes as its starting point that there is no acceptable level of road fatalities other than zero. It is based on four main principles: 

1) People inevitably make mistakes which can lead to road crashes; however, no one should die or be seriously injured on the road as a result of these mistakes; 

2) The human body has a limited physical ability to tolerate crash forces; 

3) Road safety is a shared responsibility amongst everyone, including those who design, build, operate and use the road system; 

4) All parts of the road system must be strengthened in combination to multiply the protective effects and if one part fails, the others will still protect people. 

The Safe System approach is a strategy for road injury prevention that is ‘forgiving’. It recognises that human error on the road is inevitable but death as result of a crash is not. It acknowledges the dynamic interaction between operating speeds, vehicles, road infrastructure and road user behaviour. And it applies a methodology of ‘defence in depth’ so that the sum of the individual parts of the system combine to protect road users even if one part of the system fails and a crash occurs. This systemic approach has been widely applied in other transport modes such as aviation, rail, and shipping but unfortunately far less actively in road transport. 

For too long effective road injury prevention has been undermined by the oversimplistic cliché that 90% of road fatalities are caused by driver error.  At best driver error can be identified as the last failure in a casual chain of events leading up to the crash. Overstating the role of driver error runs the risk that effective counter measures such as better road and vehicle design are given insufficient priority. In contrast the Safe System approach encourages a holistic and integrated strategy to protect road users even when – predictably – they make mistakes. A critical requirement is to ensure that crash impact forces remain below levels that will cause fatal or serious injury. Improved speed management is, therefore, a key component for safe systems implementation. 

Well established evidence shows the influence of speed on crash occurrence and severity. The International Transport Forum’s 2018 report ‘Speed and Crash Risk’ showed that in ten countries with higher driving speeds, the number of crashes and the crash severity increase disproportionally. And in 2020 the World Bank published a study ‘Road Crash Trauma, Climate Change, Pollution and the Total Cost of Speed’ which shows that speed management is a strong policy lever to improve safety, climate change, and health impacts of road transport. 

That’s why I am pleased that from July 6th intelligent speed assistance (ISA), together with other advanced driver assistance technologies, will become a mandatory requirement for new vehicles sold in the EU. Over the next decade as ISA becomes more widespread it will encourage a ‘can’t speed won’t speed’ driving experience that, I believe, will make a major contribution to achieving the target to halve road deaths and serious injuries by 2030. The EU is leading the world with introduction of ISA technology and I hope that other countries and regions follow this example. 

The Towards Zero Foundation last year explored potential growth trends in global vehicle markets. The ‘business as usual’ forecast – assuming a return to pre-COVID 19 annual production levels of 2.4% – would result in a further 1.1 billion new vehicles joining the global fleet by 2030. More than 50% of this increase will be in middle and low income countries. So it seems inevitable that we will remain far from ‘peak motorisation’. On present trends by 2030 the world will reach a global fleet of over two billion vehicles (not including motorcycles); a fleet still overwhelmingly powered by 100 year old internal combustion engine technology and falling significantly short of 100% penetration of the most important safety features. That is why it is vital that this decade’s new cohort of vehicles adopt best available technologies as widely as possible for both crash worthiness and crash avoidance. 

I believe that it would be far better if we could avoid returning to the pre-COVID global demand for motor vehicles. The challenge we face is to ‘bend the curve’ of road transport towards zero negative health impacts.  To achieve this we need to reduce car dependency and promote the ‘Avoid, Shift and Improve’ paradigm for sustainable transport. This would simultaneously reduce the need for unnecessary travel; promote walking, cycling and public transport; and also encourage vehicle technologies that reduce injury risk and pollution. To secure this rebalancing of transport demand we will also, in my view, have to introduce new forms of ‘pay as you go’ road user charging. 

These broader aims for sustainable road transport, of course, are needed to meet the climate change imperative of achieving net zero carbon by 2050. But they are also entirely consistent with the UN’s #50by30 target and the EU’s longer term goal of achieving ‘Vision Zero’ by 2050. 

To realise these ambitious targets at the Towards Zero Foundation we favour the methodology of ‘back casting’. This starts by defining the desired outcome – zero road deaths and pollution –  and then working backwards to identify the polices and programmes that can help achieve these goals. It requires a kind of reverse road map which helps identify the measures that will simultaneously encourage safer roads, safer vehicles, and safer road users. We know that to be effective ‘back casting’ requires scientific evidence-based policies. And that is exactly the kind of state-of-the-art research and simulations you will be discussing here in Athens. So I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak to you today and to encourage your work which is so vital if we are to make progress towards a world eventually free from road fatalities. 

That is the ambition I hope we all share; to halve road deaths and serious injuries by 2030 on a path to achieve zero by 2050. At the moment Europe’s road safety performance is a global ‘best in class’. We have the world’s safest road network and, over the previous decade, have achieved the most progress in reducing road deaths. But there is no excuse for resting on any laurels because we still experience a level of fatalities and serious injury that is inexcusable given that so many are both predictable and preventable. That is why I would like to close with some good advice from the world’s first historian Herodotus. He warned that some “give up their designs when they have almost reached the goal, while others, on the contrary, obtain a victory by exerting at the last moment, more vigorous efforts than ever before”. And surely more vigorous efforts on road safety are exactly what we need now. Thank you very much.

*RIP Manolis Bezirtzoglou