Infrastructure and road safety in Europe: an overview

Innovation News Network speaks with José Díez from the European Union Road Federation (ERF) to outline the current situation with European road infrastructure and safety.

On the road to safer driving

Maintaining and developing road infrastructure is crucial for ensuring European roads are as safe as they can be. The European Union Road Federation’s José Díez explains the importance of public and private institutions working together as the industry faces a total transformation with the emergence of enhanced technology and autonomous vehicles in the EU.

How can we make road infrastructure safer and what management tools are available to ensure infrastructure is as safe as it can be?

A positive figure to start: European roads are currently the safest in the world with a ratio of 49 fatalities per one million inhabitants (the global ratio is 174 deaths per million). However, any death is a disaster and 25,300 people lost their lives on EU roads in 2017.

European roads can be divided in two types: TEN-T roads and the rest of the network. Roads belonging to the TEN-T are the safest by far; it is mainly composed of motorways planned, designed, constructed and operated according to the highest safety standards. TEN-T is regulated by a specific safety management framework currently under revision (RISM Directive 2008/96/EC).

However, there is still room for improvement. An extension of the directive beyond the TEN-T network could have a significant positive impact, this is because, it only covers four per cent of the overall road network (excluding urban roads) and comprises eight per cent of the total number of fatalities.

Another key element is the current condition and lack of maintenance of the whole infrastructure (pavement potholes, bridges) and specific elements (signs, markings, barriers). These road elements are necessary to guarantee safe driving for connected and autonomous vehicles. The revision of the RISM Directive should also ensure a minimum level of safety performance.

How can the introduction of new road technology, such as smart highways, improve the safety of Europe’s roads?

Innovation and new technologies can clearly make our roads safer. There are cost-effective solutions available in the market and their implementation can offer a good level of safety for any road user, including the most vulnerable ones or elderly drivers. For instance, real gains can be obtained by simple elements, such as the special lower barrier for motorcyclists, pavement surfaces with good skid-resistance, or good maintenance conditions in markings and signs.

New technologies represent a step further in terms of upgrading road infrastructure and facilitating its adaptation to connected and autonomous vehicles; a combination of sensors, guidance systems and exchange of data and information with current measures will increase safety in driving conditions.

Infrastructure and automobile sectors are developing cutting edge solutions. It is now up to the decision makers to adapt the regulatory framework to new mobility trends. At EU level, this discussion comes at the right moment with the revision of the Safety Vehicle Regulation and the RISM Directive. While the European Commission and Parliament move ahead with a clear commitment to improve road safety by requesting minimum quality performance for markings and signs, the reaction from Member States is more conservative – just requesting a report on the condition of those elements without further action. This lack of ambition will slow down the positive impact of new technologies, such as the lane departure systems or intelligent speed assistance.

With new road safety guidelines due to be released for 2020, have there been any instrumental changes from when the current guidelines were released in 2011 and what can we expect to see as the main focus points in future guidelines?

The Road Safety Programme launched in 2011 has been proved to be positive, combining measures in three areas: human factor, infrastructure and vehicle. Although, the initial ambitious target of halving fatalities has not been achieved, co-ordinated work between actors shows we are on the right track.

The lack of regulatory harmonisation and different national approaches will be the main issues to tackle in the future strategy – 2020 to 2030 – for the infrastructure dimension. A true coordination between public bodies should be at the forefront of the policy guidelines.

In this sense, the ERF welcomes the appointment of the first European Co-ordinator for Road Safety. Although the new role is expected to coordinate all stakeholders’ interests and raise political and civil awareness, the ultimate goal should be to facilitate the implementation of EU objectives in an effective manner in Member States, including regulatory framework related to infrastructure and road safety.

Do you think enough is being done at the EU level to improve road infrastructure and make the roads safer?

At the European level, funding is limited to cohesion and other financial tools, such as the Connecting Europe Facility mainly allocated to upgrade the TEN-T roads. However, funding for road construction and maintenance relies mostly on Member States. The latest financial crisis severely impacted on public spending so road works were reduced to the minimum. This situation is reflected on the poor conditions of part of the network. So here there is a much needed call for action rather than at EU level.

What the EU can do is work on the regulatory framework by improving the role of its infrastructure in road safety. EC and EP are firmly committed to proposing the extension of the Road Infrastructure Safety Directive beyond the TEN-T or to make compulsory new vehicle standards that will facilitate connectivity with signs and markings. However, the main challenge will remain in the total acceptance of those promising measures by Member States.

Do you believe that improvement of road infrastructure is the responsibility of governments or businesses, and is it important that both work together and share the responsibility?

Both industry and public administrations must work hand in hand. Both parties share the same objective: to reduce the number of fatalities. While the industry has been developing different solutions to avoid accidents, road administrations need to create the favourable conditions to deploy them. Representatives from both sides participate regularly in working groups to exchange knowledge and anticipating to future challenges.

Our sector is experiencing a total transformation with the introduction of autonomous vehicles. This dialogue now needs to be intensified by joining forces: the industry is offering several products, EU institutions are leading the policy upgrade for safer infrastructure and vehicles, and Member States should provide their experiences in planning and managing road infrastructure.

José Díez

Director of Public Affairs

and Communications

European Union Road Federation

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