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Vice-President and Commissioner for Transport
Reducing serious injuries: the way forward to make Europe’s roads safer
Road Transport Safety Conference on Serious Injuries/Dublin
28 March 2013
Minister, ladies and gentlemen
Thank you for inviting me to Dublin to speak at today’s conference.
I would like to commend the Irish EU Presidency for selecting serious road traffic injuries as one of its transport policy priorities.
I’m sure you will all have seen the latest EU road safety figures for last year – 9 per cent fewer people killed on Europe’s roads than in 2011.
It’s also the lowest number of road deaths recorded since we started collecting data. And I’m pleased to see that Ireland remains among the top performing road safety countries in the European Union.
This result is a very positive improvement from the “wake-up call” of last year, when the rate of decline in road deaths slowed down markedly.
Europe’s roads have become considerably safer during the last decade: between 2001 and 2011, road deaths fell by 43%.
This is the result of several elements in the EU’s road safety policy: for example, our work on national and cross-border enforcement, deployment of vehicle safety devices and tougher rules on vehicle testing, particularly for motorcycles.
We are now back on the right track. We still need to move towards the 'vision zero' for road fatalities by 2050 and to halve road casualties by 2020.
But the picture is not quite as rosy for road injuries, whose figures are not falling by nearly the same rate. Estimates for the same 10-year period show the number of injured people decreased by 26%. Serious injuries were down by almost 36%.
Let me put that into another context.
Estimates for 2010 show almost 1.5 million people were injured in traffic accidents, and about a quarter of a million of these were serious.
Just compare that with the 28,000 road fatalities reported in the EU for 2012.
These injury rates remain unacceptably high. There is much more work to do.
Traditionally, road safety strategies focus on reducing fatalities.
Injuries are often overlooked and are now a major health problem. For every person killed in a road accident, there are an estimated four life-long disabled, 10 serious injuries and 40 slight injuries.
The most common serious injuries are to the head and brain, then legs and spine. Many of those injured become permanently disabled. The socio-economic costs are very high – and not just the pain and suffering endured by crash victims.
If you add up the expense of medical treatment and of losing members of the workforce, and the extra financial burden placed on insurance, legal and social support systems, the EU’s road injuries give rise to a combined annual bill of around 2% of GDP.
For 2012, that would be about €250 billion.
Most fatal accidents occur outside urban areas. But nearly 70 per cent of slight injuries, and more than half of serious injuries - where the young and elderly are over-represented - happen inside built-up areas, rather than on rural roads.
It only takes a second for a collision to happen.
But the consequences for the victims can stretch over many years, especially with serious injuries. They can scar a human life forever and shatter the lives of friends and family.
Unfortunately, these details and numbers of serious injuries and their associated costs are only estimates. The real figures are likely to be much higher, because of the substantial problem of misreporting and underreporting.
It is also difficult, if not impossible, to compare data across Europe. National figures, when they do exist, vary widely. There are many different views on what should constitute a road injury.
Europe needs some common definitions of what road injuries actually are.
This is how we can better understand the problems and design a better strategy to deal with them: to reduce serious injuries and their long-term consequences.
Our overall aim is to reduce the total number of road accidents – to prevent both deaths and injuries, and at least reduce the severity of accidents.
Given the success of the EU’s work in reducing road deaths, we want to move ahead on serious injuries using the same cautious and determined approach.
Ladies and gentlemen: in practical terms, what can we do?
The European Commission’s action plan proposes three main elements:
- it establishes a common definition of serious injury;
- it proposes the idea of an EU-wide target for reducing serious injuries, to complement the one we already have for reducing fatalities;
- it sets a way ahead for improving national data collection on serious accidents.
Firstly, how severe – or minor - is a road injury? How do we define it?
Some EU countries use medical classifications; others use the long-term effects of the injury. Or perhaps they use other criteria, such the length of hospitalisation needed or the extent of trauma suffered.
These differences mean we cannot compare national data compiled by Member States. Neither can we really understand the extent and nature of the problem.
Common EU definitions are a precondition for pinpointing ways to improve prevention of injuries and reduce their rate and severity. They will also help to set European and national reduction targets.
For this, Member States can use a globally recognised scale of trauma severity that already exists: the Maximum Abbreviated Injury Scale.
By 2014, all countries should be able to collect comparable, reliable and relevant data using the scale’s common definition of serious injury.
Of course, the Commission is ready to help with any changes that may be needed.
This will become the baseline year for monitoring trends and improvements, allowing an EU-wide reduction target to be set up to 2020.
This target should be similar to the one that the EU already has for reducing road fatalities and will probably pose a greater challenge to meet.
Ladies and gentlemen: I mentioned earlier that there were problems with misreporting and underreporting of injuries.
A key element of the Commission’s action plan is to create a better, more systematic and uniform collection of in-depth accident data.
In most EU countries, national road traffic injury figures are only based on police reports. But realistically, it is not the job of the police to carry out a full medical assessment at every accident scene.
Unfortunately, this means not all accidents are filed and many non-fatal injuries are not reported.
Some injuries are reported as serious when they are not, or vice-versa. And research shows that many serious injuries are not reported at all.
But if the relevant parts of the police and hospital statistics are linked for each accident, a more complete picture emerges. This is the ideal solution to the problem, and substantially reduces the risk of underreporting and misreporting.
However, Member States will have two other options for gathering their injury data.
They can continue using the police accident reports but apply a national correction coefficient to get a "true" estimate of numbers.
Or, they can use hospital statistics to establish the total number of seriously injured.
Ladies and gentlemen
Since the start of the millennium, we have made good progress in reducing road fatalities. Although numbers still vary a great deal around Europe, Member States have been working hard to improve road safety.
It is now time to do the same to reduce the amounts of injuries, whether serious or slight, to make Europe’s roads a safer place to travel, for everyone.
Thank you for your attention and I look forward to hearing your discussions.