1. Introduction to road safety

Road safety is an ongoing concern for drivers in the UK. It stands to reason that hurtling along at speeds in excess of 70mph can lead to people finding themselves in dangerous situations, and, with the increasing number of cars currently on British roads, the chances of a collision go up on an annual basis as a result.

In the last four years alone (from 2012 to 2016), the number of vehicles on the road has risen rapidly – with an increase of over one million cars in that period, from 30.5m to 31.7m. With these numbers continuing to grow every year, the risk factor is only set to increase for drivers. When secondary distractions are thrown into the mix, the chance of an accident becomes all the more likely.

The UK’s road safety statistics

Understandably, we try hard not to think about the worst scenarios when it comes to road accidents. Fatal collisions might only be on the periphery of our thoughts when driving, but they do occur. It might surprise some to hear there were a staggering 1,810 estimated deaths from road accidents in the year ending September 2016 alone.

While this number might sound shockingly high, the graph below highlights that in reality it’s a relatively normal annual number:

Road deaths: GB, rolling years ending September, 2008 - 2016

While we might often overlook – or purposefully ignore – these types of statistics, it’s important to have an understanding of the dangers of driving. While you shouldn’t adopt a policy of fear which sees you shy away from getting behind the wheel at all costs, it would also be prudent to pay attention to the numbers and reassess safety levels.

Between July and September 2016, there were a number of incidents, which saw:

  • An increase in fatality rates of 2% from the same period in 2015
  • That despite there being just a 1.4% rise in the number of road vehicles
  • Total casualties actually reduced by a total of 4%

Some other stats from 2016 to consider:

  • A total of 25,160 were either killed or seriously injured (KSI)
  • 182,560 casualties of all severities were reported
  • The overall casualty rate per vehicle per mile decreased by 5%

Interestingly though, the number of people who were killed or seriously injured (KSI) increased for every type of road user:

  • Car occupant KSI rates saw the largest rise, going up by 10% to reach a total of 9,480 across the year
  • Pedestrian KSIs rose by 3% to 5,480 for the past 12 months
  • Motorcyclist KSIs went up 5% to 5,650
  • Pedal cyclists KSIs reached 3,430 – a rise of 2%

While these are the cold, hard facts, it’s also interesting to take note of the British public’s attitude towards road safety. Perceptions of dangers and hazards will naturally have a massive impact on how we drive, and could give us an insight into what causes such frequent crashes.

Interestingly, when it comes to drink driving, research from gov.uk found that:

  • Just 70% of men feel you shouldn’t drive after drinking alcohol, compared to 85% of women
  • 76% of people who drive think you can do so after consuming alcohol, compared to 85% of non-drivers

These numbers are interesting, and show a clear disconnect between different demographics when it comes to road safety. But what about in the case of mobile usage?

Similarly to drink driving, this slight distortion carries over between the sexes. The study found that:

  • 43% of males thought of it as dangerous, compared to 53% of females
  • Just 33% of men thought driving with a mobile should be outright banned, compared to 46% of women

There was a notable difference when it came to age ranges too, with a trend which (perhaps unsurprisingly) saw people become warier of the risks the older they became:

Proportions who agree or strongly agree with statements on the use of mobile phones while driving, by age

Regardless of the demographical changes, it appears as though mobile usage is considered drastically less dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol. These statistics give a glimpse into the relatively casual attitude people have towards using a mobile phone behind the wheel.

General driving hazards

Everyone would be an expert driver if there was nothing on the road or pavement to worry about. Unfortunately, the addition of those factors means there’s a need for constant vigilance at all times. The addition of alcohol or mobile usage behind the wheel only serves to make monitoring these potential hazards more difficult.

Some of the dangers you could potentially face include:

  • Vehicles emerging suddenly from corners or junctions
  • Pedestrians crossing
  • Animals (such as cats and dogs) running out into the road
  • Narrow lanes (primarily in the country)
  • Doors suddenly being opened on the side of a road

These will pose a potential headache for anyone, regardless of whether they’re preoccupied or not. However, when you factor in the additional distractions which occur when your attention is in some way hindered, you’re on a crash course for disaster.

Things can change on the road at any given moment, and it’s for that very reason you’ll need to be totally aware of your surroundings on a second-by-second basis. Taking road safety for granted and assuming no hazard with pop up is a guaranteed way to see your day end in mayhem.

What is defensive driving?

Defensive driving is a practice which sees someone adopting a far more conservative approach on the road in order to ensure they reduce the risks of causing an accident. This isn’t a trait which you’ll naturally inherit, but rather something which needs to be taught or acquired as you become more confident behind the wheel.

This isn’t just a case of driving slowly and paying extra attention to potential road hazards. Rather, going as far as to pre-empt a potential collision or other disaster occurring on the road. Here’s a perfect example of where defensive driving could be employed:

Regular driving:

  1. You park at a set of traffic lights three to four feet away from the car in front of you
  2. You see another car approaching behind you at quick speed, with a driver who appears to be distracted
  3. You now have nowhere to move and the car could potentially crash into the back of you

Defensive driving:

  1. You park at a set of traffic lights one-and-a-half car lengths away from the car in front of you
  2. You see another car approaching behind you at quick speed, with a driver who appears to be distracted
  3. You can now move forward and give the driver behind a far greater amount of space to perform an emergency stop in

It’s certainly not ‘wrong’ to brake a few feet away from another vehicle, but you’re not allowing yourself the chance to make adjustments if something catastrophic does occur. Defensive driving gifts you the opportunity to make things that little bit safer.

This is just one example of where defensive driving will come in handy. Other examples of this style of driving include:

  • Only starting the car once you’re totally sure everyone is seated and strapped in
  • Slowing your speed at night or during hazardous weather conditions
  • Always sticking to speed limits
  • Paying attention to pedestrians and animals along the side of the road
  • Checking for escape routes on every approach you make
  • Regularly checking your mirrors
  • Assuming other people will drive poorly and make adjustments accordingly
  • Always being aware of what is on your right, left and behind you
  • Making eye contact with drivers and pedestrians to see where their attention is focused
  • Checking things like the direction a parked car’s wheels are facing – this could tell you if they’re about to pull out or not

Becoming a pro defensive driver certainly won’t happen overnight. But, if you begin working at it, you’ll eventually find you’ll develop a heightened awareness, giving you the ability to pre-empt certain dangers and improve your chances of avoiding them.