Vision Zero – more on the case for traffic reduction: the dramatic impact of the first lockdown on road casualties

Summary

  • In recent years research has uncovered the link between reducing levels of traffic to a decline in the numbers of people who are killed and injured on our roads.
  • Across Great Britain, provisional casualty data is now available for the first 6 months of 2020 (January to June) which includes the first lockdown which began on 23rd March. Compared to the same period in 2019, road casualties fell by 25% for the whole period of Jan-Jun 2020; during this 6-month period traffic levels fell by some 14%. The decline in pedestrian casualties was particularly high with injuries down by 31%.
  • In London, data from TfL allows us to isolate the period from the start of the lockdown to the end of June only; for this 13-week period, fatal and serious casualties were down by 45% and pedestrian casualties fell by around 67%. Cycling casualties were down to a lower extent (-17%) but this is potentially because many more people took up cycling during the first lockdown.
  • While traffic levels may return to higher levels as the pandemic recedes, it seems clear that, in built-up areas, if those increases can be kept to a minimum, this can have significant benefits for the numbers of people killed and seriously injured on our roads and in particular for pedestrians and cyclists, groups which have seen very little decline in casualties in Great Britain in the past decade.

The significance of traffic reduction

In earlier research that we have reported on and in particular in the research by Todd Litman we have seen that reducing traffic volumes can have a positive impact on the numbers of people who are killed and seriously injured on the roads. He cites in particular the creation of the London Congestion Charge in 2003 which not only resulted in “meaningful” reductions of traffic volumes, but also “substantial” and “significant” reductions in “accidents and fatalities”.

Just published are the provisional statistics on the numbers of people injured on the roads in Great Britain in the first half of 2020 which includes the first lockdown which started on 23rd March. During that time, motor traffic volumes fell dramatically but at the same time large numbers of people were out and about walking and cycling.

Road casualties in the first half of 2020

Across the UK, the Department for Transport (DfT) provisional road casualty figures for January to June 2020 (which includes much of the first lockdown) shows (RAS45007) year-on-year falls in road casualties of around 25% compared with the same period in 2019. Declines were particularly high for pedestrians (-c31%) but lower for people cycling (-c10%) potentially because many people took up cycling at that time. The DfT report on these statistics notes that the reduction in casualties is broadly in line with the reduction in traffic which decreased by 14% over this (whole 6 month) period (in 2020).

Road casualties in the first lockdown

Transport for London data allows us to look at the impact of the lockdown more closely through their new Vision Zero Dashboard where they have uploaded the provisional data for Jan-Jun 2020 and where it can be compared with 2019. The period after the first lockdown began can be isolated (from 23rd March to 30th June) and compared with exactly the same period for 2019. Although the lockdown was starting to be eased by June 2020 and traffic volumes in London were climbing again, the impact of that period with those reduced levels of driving is stark.

Over this 13-week period, fatalities fell year-on-year by almost a third (-30%) while the number of people killed and seriously injured fell by almost half (-45%). The number of people injured at all on the roads also fell by almost half (-45%).

Even more pronounced are the changes that occurred in injuries of the users of the different modes on London’s roads. Injuries to pedestrians declined by more than two-thirds while motorcycle and vehicle occupant casualties fell by between a third and a half. Injuries to people cycling fell by up to a fifth, again potentially a lower fall as more people had taken up cycling at this time.

Throughout this period traffic was significantly lower than it had been during the previous year. TfL reported on traffic volumes during the lockdown in its Travel in London Report 13 which was published in December 2020. This indicated that over the 23rd March to 30th June period motor traffic was operating between 60% (w/c 30th March) and 15% (w/c 29th June) lower than comparable volumes in 2019.

Rapidly rising traffic volumes in Great Britain

We know that motor traffic volumes are returning to higher levels in more recent months and that inevitably the numbers people injured on our roads will rise again to closer to the pre-pandemic levels. What also appears clear is the degree to which the ongoing increase in traffic volumes across Great Britain contributes to the difficulties in reducing road casualties. Overall traffic volumes have risen by 17% in just 9 years rising from 262bn vehicle miles in 2010 to 307bn in 2019. During this period since 2010, road fatalities in Great Britain (DfT =Table: RAS30059) have fallen by just 5% (from 1,850 in 2010 to 1,752 in 2019). The picture for serious injures is more complex owing to the changes in reporting practices from 2016 but unadjusted numbers of serious injuries have risen from 24,510 in 2010 to 27,697 in 2019.

Conclusions

While motor traffic volumes fell dramatically during the first lockdown, outside city centres the numbers of people walking and particularly cycling stayed high as many people undertook active daily exercise. The numbers of people injured on the roads and especially those walking fell dramatically underscoring the link between exposure to motor traffic and the numbers of casualties that result.

If the UK Government has an interest in both reducing the numbers that are injured on our roads and enabling people to walk and cycle, reducing traffic volumes must also become a factor in how this is achieved. This is particularly the case in built-up areas where the interactions between those on foot and motor vehicles are so much more frequent. It points to the benefits of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods which the Government has supported and which help to reduce traffic volumes and also have a dramatic impact on road casualties.

The lockdown has shown that reducing the exposure of people (and those on foot in particular) to motor vehicles can result in dramatic declines in the numbers who are killed and injured. It is vital that in building back better we take advantage of this new knowledge to begin once again to reduce the numbers who are killed and injured on our roads.

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