From 6th July 2022 for the first time in 25 years the UK will no longer have world class vehicle safety standards. Britain is falling behind global best practice in road safety. Rather than adopt new life-saving regulations for cars and commercial vehicles now being implemented across the European Union (EU), the British Government is dithering, delaying, and diverging.
Grouped together in a package called the General Safety Regulation (GSR) the new EU standards feature the phased introduction of intelligent speed assistance, autonomous emergency braking (AEB), better crash test standards, and improved truck visibility to reduce blind spots1. 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 avoiding so much misery and pain, and deliver £7 billion in net economic benefits.
That is why a cross party group of six former road safety ministers wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport Grant Schapps with the clearest possible advice. In February they urged him to introduce the GSR package in full adding that it is “the single most important thing you can do now to reduce deaths and injuries on UK roads”2. But rather than act to cut the 33,000 deaths and serious injuries that have occurred over the last decade on British roads, the Department of Transport (DfT) is watering down the GSR. Not all of its measures will make it into a new GB framework for ‘type approval’ that will replace the EU-wide system under which the GSR is now being applied.
The early loser in this process of selective divergence is intelligent speed assistance (ISA) which DfT has confirmed will not now become a mandatory UK requirement. ISA is a safety device that continuously detects the speed limit through a combination of digital maps and cameras. It prevents the driver from exceeding the limit but can be overridden if needed. I have an ISA system in my own car and have found it both very accurate and comfortable to use. It encourages a relaxed ‘can’t speed, won’t speed’ driving style and reduces anxiety about getting speeding tickets and saves fuel. Given that speed is the single most significant factor in fatal and serious road crashes, it is well evidenced that ISA would boost road safety in the UK.
However, ISA has been targeted by the Express, Mail, and the Daily Telegraph as an ‘EU style speed limiter’ that will be an interfering ‘Big Brother in the cockpit’3. And now Jacob Rees Mogg, the Minister for Brexit Opportunities, is exploiting the issue to argue that “we should put divergence behind us” and “not look over our shoulder saying the EU is doing this and, therefore, we should do it too”. Last month he went further expressing doubts about safety standards in general. “If equipment is safe and works” he asked “why does it need a product specific regulation.”
Rees Mogg seems completely ignorant of the tens of thousands lives saved by vehicle safety regulation over the last 30 years. In the late 1990s a British-led initiative to improve EU vehicle crash test standards for front and side impact has more than halved occupant deaths in Europe4. This has been the largest single contributor to reducing EU road deaths (including in the UK) from over 45,000 people in the mid 1990’s to less than 20,000 today. In 2016 after the Brexit referendum Rees Mogg even claimed that the UK could slash safety standards ‘a very long way’ and suggested that vehicle regulations that were “good enough for India’ could also be good enough for the UK5. In saying this he was blissfully unaware that the Indian Government had in 2015 decided to align its crash test standards with the EU! Not at all inhibited from opining on subjects he knows nothing about Rees Mogg is now the Government’s leading ultracrepidarian.
Whether you voted for Brexit or not, did you expect our vehicle safety standards to decline? Surely not because we were promised during the Brexit referendum campaign that leaving the EU will not weaken UK standards of consumer protection. But this is exactly what is happening now.
Perhaps you might have thought that the UK Parliament would put a stop to this. Unfortunately they haven’t considered the issue at all. There has been no Transport Select Committee inquiry and no debate in the House of Commons on how vehicle standards will be regulated in post-Brexit Britain. Instead decisions on the GSR are being taken by DfT Ministers alone without any vote by MP’s or possibility of amendment. This is in stark contrast to the two year EU legislative process (2018-2019) for the GSR which involved detailed scrutiny by the European Parliament, EU Transport Ministers, and engagement with industry and consumer groups6. So much for the Brexit slogan ‘Take Back Control’.
To cover their embarrassment the DfT is now trying to play down the impact of not applying the GSR in full. Journalists are being told that the independent consumer safety rating body, the European New Car Assessment Programme, already includes ISA and that the GSR legislation is somehow superfluous. It is true that Euro NCAP’s ‘5 star’ test requirements usually far exceed regulatory requirements; but these only cover passenger cars and not all models are tested. Furthermore, the GSR will introduce long overdue safety improvements for all categories of commercial vehicles. Euro NCAP has only just begun testing vans7. And these results have revealed a very poor level of safety equipment in vehicles that are disproportionately involved in fatal crashes and are a fast growing segment in the UK fleet8. It would clearly be beneficial for ISA and AEB to be mandatory for vans as will be case in the European Single Market. There is no avoiding the fact that by diverging from the GSR UK vehicle safety regulations will be weaker than those being applied in the EU.
Divergence driven by Brexit ideology 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. ISA equipped vehicles capable of reading the speed limit will be a ‘sine qua non’ for future CAV mobility and by not requiring the technology the UK will fall behind. The failure to align our vehicle regulations with the EU is like a slow puncture that will gradually deflate our safety standards and competitiveness.
Unsurprisingly the automobile industry does not want this technical divergence. According to the Chief Executive of the UK’s SMMT, Mike Hawes “with the heavily integrated nature of the UK and European automotive sectors, regulatory divergence is not advantageous for either party.” And that’s 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 was not inevitable. Grant Schapps has the legislative power to enact the GSR safety standards in full now. Regardless of Brexit he could have proposed their introduction on the entirely defensible basis that they will reduce death and serious injury on our roads. That should be his primary duty as Secretary of State for Transport. He has all the necessary evidence and expert opinion available to him. In May I had the opportunity to raise these issues with him myself during a meeting of Transport Ministers hosted by the International Transport Forum in Leipzig Germany. He drove a car with AEB and was enthusiastic about the potential of advanced driver safety systems to save lives.
However, Schapps supported ‘remain’ in the 2016 referendum and is sitting around a Cabinet of ‘vote leave’ hard-liners like Ress Mogg, Michael ‘we had enough of expert’s’ Gove, and Suella Braverman who is now blaming so-called ‘remainer’ civil servants for causing Brexit to fail. Not exactly a conducive environment for Schapps and his DfT officials to recommend that the UK remains aligned with EU vehicle safety standards. That explains why key parts of the GSR like ISA are being sacrificed on the altar of Brexit opportunities. Divergence is happening now simply because the DfT is under more pressure to scrap EU regulations than to save the lives of British road users. And that is how Brexit ideology is becoming the new killer on Britain’s roads.
1 Safety in the automotive sector (europa.eu)
2 Former Transport Ministers call on Grant Shapps to act on vehicle safety – 1 February 2022 – PACTS
3 Devices to stop drivers speeding could be mandatory in all new cars (telegraph.co.uk)
4 Crashing Cars to Save Lives. The twenty-year success story of how European Union crash tests have become global life savers. – David Ward (daviddjward.com)
5 Britain could slash environmental and safety standards ‘a very long way’ after Brexit, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg says | The Independent | The Independent
6 MEPs back life-saving vehicle safety standards in key vote | ETSC
7 Euro NCAP | Euro NCAP Announces Safest Commercial Vans of 2022
8 PACTS Report: What kills most on the roads? – PACTS