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Shift in road safety attitudes

A busy motorwayMotorists today think improving main roads is the best way to prevent accidents, according to new AA research. But this viewpoint has changed significantly since the study was first carried out 20 years ago.

According to the AA, 72 per cent of its members believe that improving main roads would make the biggest contribution to reducing road deaths and injuries.

This is almost a complete reversal of opinion compared to 20 years ago, when AA members voted it as only the 10th most important factor in improving road safety.

Stronger driver and pedestrian training was voted as the second priority, up from 9th position in 1993.

A total drink-drive ban came in third, down from pole position 20 years ago.

Top 10 accident prevention priorities

2013 ranking

1993 ranking

Improve main roads

1 (72%)

10

Stronger driver and pedestrian training

2 (68%)

9

Total drink-drive ban

3 (63%)

1

Random breath tests

4 (59%)

3

Improve public transport

5 (59%)

7

More stringent driving test

6 (54%)

4

More severe laws and penalties

7 (48%)

2

Black spot warning signs

8 (47%)

5

More cycle paths and priority for cyclists

9 (45%)

6

Restrict passengers

10 (45%)

12

Public opinion

Although some priorities have attracted consistently strong support, such as random breath testing, others have moved up or down as the years have passed.

This illustrates how, over time, public opinion can shift when it comes to road safety issues.

Take the law requiring drivers and front seat passengers in cars to wear seat belts, for example.

This was introduced in 1983 and at the time a large minority of motorists strongly opposed this "interference" from the law.

In fact only 40 per cent of drivers and front seat passengers wore seat belts before its introduction, according to road safety group the Road Safety Observatory.

Driver fatalities reduced

However, there was an immediate 25 per cent reduction in driver fatalities and a 29 per cent reduction in fatal injuries among front seat passengers, its statistics show.

It was estimated that the seat belt law saved the lives of 241 drivers and 147 front passengers in 1983 alone.

And nowadays, you would expect the majority of drivers to agree this law was a reasonable addition to our legal system.

Mobile phones

The use of mobile phones is another example of how attitudes can shift over time when it comes to road safety.

Using a handheld mobile phone while driving was made illegal in December 2003.

The effect of talking on a phone while driving has been shown to be worse than drinking certain levels of alcohol, according to road safety charity Brake.

Drivers using phones have slower reaction times and have greater difficulty controlling speed and lane position, it says, with those who talk on phone four times more likely to be in a crash that causes injury.

And according to research by insurer LV=, 82 per cent of motorists agree and now think it is unacceptable to use a handheld phone when driving.

Changing attitudes

Ellen Booth is senior campaigns officer at Brake and says changing driver attitudes and behaviour is the most important thing we can do to make our roads safer.

Booth says: "This is tough work, but it can be achieved through a combination of public education and changes in the law.

"Bringing in new laws, or toughening up old ones, can help to normalise safer driving behaviour and stigmatise risky behaviour previously seen as acceptable by the public, such as drink driving or not wearing a seatbelt.

"The smoking ban is a great example of how a simple change in the law can drive public opinion and behaviour, without requiring a lot of enforcement."

What’s next?

So in 10 or 20 years from now, will we look back at any of our current driving behaviour and wonder how this was ever not illegal?

Brake campaigns for a zero drink drive limit, and should this ever be brought into law, could this be one such example?

Booth adds: "We campaign for a zero tolerance drink drive limit of 20mg alcohol per 100ml blood, which means you couldn’t have one pint and drive.”

Currently the UK alcohol limit for drivers is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood.

She adds: "The current limit sends out the wrong message, that it is safe to drink one or two, and encourages drivers to gamble with their safety, and guess whether they are over the legal limit.

"There is no way to calculate if you are legal to drive from the number of units you’ve had and evidence is clear that even very small amounts of alcohol significantly impair driving.

"Simply lowering the limit would have a big impact on public understanding of the risks involved."

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Adam Jolley

Adam Jolley

Adam Jolley is a writer at Confused.com, focusing on credit cards and financial products. Wannabe mountaineer Adam joined us from the world of financial services PR.

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Alcohol: did you know?

In the UK, the alcohol limit for drivers is:

  • 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood
  • 35 microgrammes per 100 millilitres of breath
  • 107 milligrammes per 100 millilitres of urine