The COVID crisis had an unprecedented impact on transport and mobility of European citizens, bringing travel largely to a standstill for several weeks. Even though it was not the moment to stress road safety issues when public attention was quite rightly elsewhere, road casualties have fallen considerably in the last 3 months (March, April, May 2020, though generally not as much as traffic volumes).
There are now clear - and welcome - signs of economic activity increasing again, with a commensurate rise in road mobility. There are also indications that more people are using individual ways of mobility, such as cars – but there is also more walking and cycling – and less use of public transport.
The EU's High Level Group for Road Safety therefore held a discussion on road safety in the COVID era on 16 June and agreed on the following informal conclusions setting out common principles for the forthcoming transitional period:
- Data: it is very important that we obtain timely data and share it with each other, especially on traffic volumes, casualties and speed during the "lockdown". During the height of the crisis, there is now clear evidence from a number of Member States that traffic volumes fell sharply, as did the number of killed and seriously injured but generally not in the same proportion. There is also some evidence of increased speeds to take advantage of emptier roads, and different experiences of levels of police enforcement (see below). We should continue to monitor these trends and share the data between us to draw some lessons.
- Limit exceptions to road safety rules: during the crisis, some derogation of rules such on truck driver resting period or flexibility on expired driving licences was necessary, particularly to ensure continued freight supplies. But we should now take action to end or phase out derogations and exceptions to the rules, where justified given the situation, and re-emphasise that the totality of our national and European road safety laws are fully in force – for example, since the end of May, there are no more drive and rest times derogations in any EU MS. Driver fatigue remains a major issue and all rest areas should be re-opened as soon as possible.
- Enforcement: because traffic volumes have been lower, and because of the major health crisis, police resources have sometimes been diverted from traffic duties. Now is the moment to reinstate and, where possible to reinforce, road safety enforcement, particularly if higher volumes of cars return to the roads, especially in urban areas where there are more vulnerable road users, and the risk of death and serious injury from higher speed crashes is greater.
- Restore public confidence in public transport: if fewer people use public transport and more people drive, this will tend to increase road safety casualties (after 9/11 in the US, for example, fewer people were ready to fly and driving levels increased, and so did road deaths). We shared ideas for restoring the safe use of public transport such as:
- rules on social distancing, the use of hygiene measures or face covering to make use of PT safe;
- flexible work hours + school drop off/pick up or use of "booking slots" on public transport to reduce peak volumes and optimise passenger flows;
- increasing and adapting operational frequency of public transport; and
- encouraging inter-modality (eg park and ride schemes; better bike parking at train stations).
We also discussed the importance of communication on this point. For example, health precautions such as social distancing rules have reduced the capacity of public transport. Public authorities in different parts of Europe have therefore asked citizens only to use PT for essential purposes. This message, however, has in some cases been interpreted as suggesting that PT is not safe to use, which is not the case if the necessary precautions are taken.
- Consolidate safe active mobility: there is evidence of increased cycling and walking during the COVID lockdown, especially in towns, with beneficial effects on public health, air quality and CO2 emissions. To enable these higher usage levels to be maintained safely and to fight congestion as car traffic increases, temporary ("pop up") bike lanes and wider pedestrian pathways should be made permanent wherever possible; temporary speed limits introduced to protect active road users should be evaluated and, where feasible, maintained. The importance of full respect of traffic rules and good road safety behaviour by ALL road users was stressed in our discussions.
- Safeguard road safety investment: there are tremendous pressures on funding now at all levels, both for COVID alleviation measures and because of the economic crisis more generally. It is important to keep the focus on cost effective actions such as road maintenance / upgrades; pedestrian footpaths or bike lanes (with a particular focus on higher risk intersections); and upgrading the safety as well as the environmental performance of vehicle fleets especially in the case of national scrappage schemes.
- Flexible governance: the COVID-19 crisis has required all of us to work differently and road safety is no different. For example, many of the pressures – and subsequent innovations - have taken place in urban areas, so we need to work flexibly between all levels of governance - urban and local municipalities, regional governments, Member States and the European institutions – to share ideas and best practices for road safety.
- Communication: as we start to move out of the crisis, now is a good time to remind the public about the importance of road safety to save lives and reduce injury – and to lower the pressure on health and other emergency services – and again, we discussed the importance of encouraging good and responsible behaviour by all road users to reduce road risks.