In these countries, road safety is going in reverse

When it comes to road safety, the European continent boasts the best record of any other region. Fatalities from auto, bicycle, and pedestrian collisions in European countries are among the lowest in the world.

But an analysis of road safety data conducted by Motointegrator, an online shop for auto parts, and the data experts at DataPulse finds that Europe has a problem. After years of road safety efforts followed by the pandemic that suppressed traffic, collision fatality trends are uneven across the continent — and some countries are backsliding on the ground they had gained even before the pandemic. For instance, France, Italy, and Spain (with thousands of road fatalities a year), as well as Estonia, Ireland, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden, and Switzerland (with hundreds a year), are returning to — or are exceeding — 2019 levels.

“The recent uptick in road fatalities across certain countries signals a concerning reversal of hard-won progress,” says Anna Ganska, Motointegrator’s CEO. “This data is a stark reminder that reducing auto-related fatalities is an ongoing battle, and we will need to be vigilant and adaptive in order to maintain Europe’s status as a beacon of traffic safety.”

Pulling from a variety of data sources, Motointegrator took a historical look at each European country. The interactive matrix below shows which countries are trending above and below their pre-pandemic fatality numbers. The countries in red had a greater number of individuals die in 2023 than in 2019 while the countries in blue had a lower number. (This change is based on the absolute number of fatalities, not per-capita fatality rates.) The matrix also shows how the countries currently stack up against each other based on a population-adjusted rate, going from left (low fatality rate) to right (high fatality rate). The 2023 figures, pulled from the European Commission’s Community Database on Road Accidents (CARE), are preliminary.

Based on this matrix, there are three distinct groups of countries. First are the rebounders. These countries (in the red area) have a greater number of road fatalities than they did before the pandemic. They include Ireland, Estonia, and Norway, in the upper left, which have recorded the most significant upticks in death rates. Latvia, The Netherlands, Sweden, Slovakia, and Switzerland are next in this group. France, Spain, and Italy are toeing the line — these three countries are now hovering just below their pre-pandemic numbers after experiencing large declines during the pandemic.

Three of these rebounder countries — Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland — have the lowest fatality rates in the region despite their upticks. Quite clearly, no country should be trending upward, but when the number of fatalities is already low, small improvements or regressions can appear significant.

Then there are the transitionists, which are countries that have high road fatality rates but are on a path to improvement. They include Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Greece, Croatia, and Portugal. These countries are in the lower right quadrant of the matrix. While two countries in this group — Bulgaria and Romania — have the most fatalities per capita in the EU, the number of fatalities in these countries is lower than before the pandemic.

Finally, there are the pace-setters. These countries, found in the lower left of the matrix, are in the best position because they tout average or lower-than-average road fatality rates and have managed to keep the number of fatalities below pre-pandemic norms. They include Belgium, Denmark, Slovenia, Czechia, Finland, Germany which have among the lowest fatality rates in the EU.

Gearing Up for Road Safety

To understand how Europe got here, Motointegrator pulled data from the last quarter century, back to the year 2000. Between that year and 2019, per-capita traffic deaths shrank 50% in Europe, compared with only a 13% decline worldwide, according to the most recent global data available from the World Health Organization.

Before the pandemic, which drastically altered transit trends, fewer than eight people for every 100,000 on the continent died from road collisions. By contrast, the global rate stood more than double Europe’s, at about 17 deaths. The United States, which made less progress over the twenty years than Europe did, found itself at about 13 deaths per 100,000 — a higher fatality rate than every country in Europe except Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The interactive map below, which shows the drop over two decades, highlights Europe as a region that achieved major road safety gains, even when compared with other developed regions in the Americas and Oceania.

What is perhaps most remarkable about the decline in road fatalities during this period was that more and more vehicles were making their way onto European roads at the same time. Data from Eurostat shows that, among 35 countries for which historical data are available, the number of cars increased in every country between 2000 and 2019.

As the chart below shows, the biggest jumps were in central and eastern European countries, including Albania, Romania, and Turkiye, where cars per capita more than doubled. However, these countries still had only a fraction of the cars per person when measured alongside their western European counterparts. By 2019, nearly two-thirds of European nations had at least one car for every two residents.

Sputtering Progress

The problem with Europe’s road safety progress over the decades was that the fatality rate was not dropping consistently the whole time. It was as if someone pulled the emergency brake in 2013 and the continent stagnated at around 23,000 road deaths each year. This spurred the European Commission to create an action plan in 2018. Its key goal was to cut in half the number of road deaths and serious injuries in EU countries by 2030.

Then, the pandemic hit and road fatalities plummeted to record lows. Alas, the drop was not due to road improvements or better driver behavior, but rather to less travel overall. Last year, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre published a study on mobility trends for 178 cities in the EU, which concluded that traffic congestion levels were still milder at the end of 2022 compared to 2019 levels due to a high share of people still working from home.

The chart below, which draws from historical data from Eurostat and recent estimates from the European Commission, illustrates this bumpy ride.

“The pandemic created an unprecedented situation that offered a glimpse into a world with fewer road collisions,” remarks Ganska. “Now, we are starting to see what road fatality rates could look like as we transition into post-pandemic norms.”

At a Crossroads

If the pandemic is the reason for fewer road fatalities in recent years, it could also be the reason that fatalities ultimately tick back up rather than trend down. Why? Because traffic and congestion on the roads and motorways may soon exceed 2019 levels due to a higher preference for private car transit, according to the Joint Research Centre study.

What is more, walking and biking also increased their shares, while public transit and ridesharing lost appeal. Today’s preferred transit options are more dangerous, according to 2022 fatality data by mode of transit. Compared with coach and bus fatalities, cyclist fatalities are 15 times higher, pedestrian fatalities are 30 times higher and car fatalities are nearly 75 times higher.

“We must not overlook the shifts in transportation preferences triggered by the pandemic,” says Ganska. “The increase in walking, biking, and private car use presents new traffic challenges but also opportunities for reimagining road safety measures to accommodate travel habits.”

As it did before the pandemic, Europe has some of the safest roads in the world. Collision-related fatality rates continue to be lower than any other region. But the pandemic has made the highway to success much more challenging to predict. As people establish new norms in their travel patterns and habits, countries will adapt road safety efforts to make sure the trends are rolling in the right direction.

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Author of this study:

María Fernandez Campos

María Fernandez Campos

As a Senior Data Analyst at DataPulse, I research, gather, and transform datasets into actionable insights, enabling data-driven storytelling that resonates with the media. With over 5 years of experience in data analysis and business development across various industries, I specialize in unveiling critical trends and patterns.

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