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Map of the Week: Road crash victims

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Mark Easton | 16:40 UK time, Monday, 27 July 2009

Far more people are seriously injured on Britain's roads than the government figures suggest. Analysis by the UK Statistics Authority, the watchdog for official data, reveals "the under-reporting of road accident casualties is a significant and intractable problem" [78Kb PDF].

Instead of 26,000 people suffering serious injury after road accidents last year, the Department for Transport accepts that the true figure may be closer to 50,000. And the UKSA fears that the under-counting may mean the issue does not get the attention it deserves.

"The published statistics may not be sufficiently reliable to meet all user needs", the authority argues, demanding that the Department for Transport "explain and contextualise the limitations of the statistics more fully at the time of publication".

This matters because the level of carnage caused by drivers shapes road safety policy. As the authority puts it today: "These statistics are used... to save lives and reduce injury on the roads."

If twice as many people as previously chronicled are suffering serious injury, the arguments for greater use of measures to target bad and reckless drivers become more compelling.

The Department for Transport has long known that its data on road casualties is suspect.

As the National Audit Office recently put it:

"There have been a number of studies of under-reporting, dating back to the 1970s, and from the limited data available it is estimated that there may be about twice as many casualties as are reported, although very few fatalities are unrecorded."

The question for government, though, is not whether the figures under-record. They accept that they do. "The issue," as the most recent internal report puts it, "is how constant over time are the levels of under-recording, misclassification and under-reporting, especially of serious accidents" [319Kb PDF].

In other words, it is the trend not the number that matters - and for the last decade, the government has been reporting a downward picture.

Table 3: Casualties1: by severity: GB: 1998 - 2008 Number Year and quarter Killed Seriously Slightly All Motor traffic injured injured Casualties billion vehicle kilometres 1994-98 baseline average 3,578 44,078 272,272 319,928 440 1998 3,421 40,834 280,957 325,212 459 1999 3,423 39,122 277,765 320,310 467 2000 3,409 38,155 278,719 320,283 467 2001 3,450 37,110 272,749 313,309 474 2002 3,431 35,976 263,198 302,605 487 2003 3,508 33,707 253,392 290,607 490 2004 3,221 31,130 246,489 280,840 499 2005 3,201 28,954 238,862 271,017 499 2006 3,172 28,673 226,559 258,404 508

The good news is that while our roads have got substantially busier, deaths have declined from around 3,500 a year to 2,500. The less good news is that fatalities in motor vehicles are still among the most common ways for 15-34-year-olds in Britain to lose their lives.

Three times as many people are killed in road crashes than get murdered. More than a thousand more die in motor accidents than from illegal drugs.

I am indebted to The Grim Reaper's Road Map by Mary Shaw, Bethan Thomas, George Davey Smith and Danny Dorling for this picture of death on Britain's roads. (An explanation as to why these maps look unfamiliar can be found here.)

Map of male deaths related to road accidents in the UK

Their maps (for males above and for females below) show the places where people are most likely to die in a car crash. The lowest rates are found in urban areas, with London, Newcastle, Greater Manchester and Cardiff having particularly low incidence.

Map of female deaths related to road accidents in the UK

In rural areas, where car use is more often necessary and where average speeds are higher, rates can be many times greater. The worst place for road deaths is the north of Scotland.

The average age of a road death victim is 36.9, and three-quarters of those who die are men - predominantly in their teens, 20s and 30s.

While the death figures are probably reasonably robust, MPs are worried about the injury statistics. Earlier this month, the chair of the Transport Select Committee, Louise Ellman MP, referred to the "national scandal" of death and injury on Britain's roads and the absence of good statistics.

"The Committee was extremely concerned about the lack of reliability in the data on road injuries, particularly those in relation to serious injuries. (...) We want the Government to do more on that issue, as we are not satisfied that the information that we are getting is accurate."

She also made the point that motoring fatalities simply don't get the same headlines as those who die in plane or train crashes.

"It is self-evident. Indeed, it should make us think a little - that the scale of the carnage on our roads is not acceptable in any other mode of transport. We are talking about 2,500 people dead and more than 230,000 casualties, and, if those figures related to rail, sea or aviation, there would be national uproar. However, there is no uproar about them."

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