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01 November 2019

The road to safer highways: telematics in every vehicle

Robert Adderley

ROBERT ADDERLEY: We can dramatically reduce traffic accidents by introducing "black boxes" in every car.

Robert Adderley

This piece is part of a blog series from the student finalists of Policy Idol 2019. Through the series, we're sharing students' policy ideas for changing the world, which they pitched at the competition earlier this year. 

Find out more about Policy Idol

Read about this year's final

Britain pays an intolerably high price for its unsafe roads. Every year 1,800 people are killed, 28,000 seriously injured and £20 billion lost to vehicle accidents.

But, as a country, we seem to have all but resigned ourselves to this terrible cost. When five people died in a horrific terror attack on Westminster in 2017, we were shocked and appalled. And yet, we forget that the same number die every single day in road accidents.

This complacency is costing lives. Before 2010, we saw deaths fall year after year; but this decade of progress has shuddered to a complete halt, and we need radical ideas to move us forward.

My proposal is to make the installation of telematics devices mandatory in all new vehicles. These devices (often called “black boxes”) contain a GPS tracker and an accelerometer. This means that they can record every aspect of your driving behaviour, from how you turn corners, to your braking and fuel efficiency.

They are particularly good at spotting bad habits like speeding and reckless driving – exactly the sort of behaviour that could result in you losing control of your vehicle, which is the number one contributing factor in fatal crashes.

Telematics devices can prevent these crashes by alerting drivers to bad habits and encouraging better behaviour – and drivers do listen! Research undertaken by the European Commission has shown that companies which fit telematics to their fleets record up to 30% less crashes than those that don’t, meaning the benefits outweigh the costs nearly 20 times over.

So, why should the government make the installation of these devices mandatory? First of all, whilst some insurers are already offering telematics – few motorists have taken up the offer. Only about one million of Britain’s 31 million cars have them installed; a dire take-up rate of only 3%. Secondly, by making the scheme government-run we can achieve so much more than if we leave it to the private sector.

Telematics boxes could detect impairments or even age-related deterioration in the performance of older drivers. They could also be configured to automatically alert the emergency services when they detect a serious crash.

The government could also benefit. Telematics boxes would be a valuable source of hard evidence for crash investigators. Anonymised data from all the boxes could be collected and analysed centrally to reveal exactly how our roads are being used.

This could provide enormous insights. Problems with new cars could be identified remotely; near-misses that would otherwise go unrecorded would be logged, and transport officials would gain detailed insights into dangerous roads and junctions.

Of course, this aspect of the policy raises important privacy concerns. Can citizens trust the government to keep information about their activities safe? I would allay these concerns by making the following observations.

First, implementing this policy would require the passage of new primary legislation through parliament. The Act could proscribe using the data for punitive purposes or to identify individuals and could set up powerful oversight bodies which would monitor how the data is used and punish government agencies for any infringements.

Second, it should be pointed out that the state already knows where you’ve driven. Every time you drive past one of Britain’s 11,000 Automatic Number Plate Recognition Cameras, your activity is logged and kept on a database for up to two years.

Finally, it’s important to bear in mind that the public has accepted much more intrusive programmes in the past. Despite Snowden’s revelations, only a quarter of people believe that efforts to protect national security undermine personal privacy.

Robert Adderley is an undergraduate student in International Relations.

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