Transport safety in Europe: from 25,000 deaths to zero

transport safety in europe
© iStock/franckreporter

For the past 25 years, the European Transport Safety Council has advocated for improving transport safety in Europe – and it doesn’t stop there.

At the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC), one number is on our mind every day we come to work: 25,000. This is the number of deaths on EU roads every year. It’s a number that motivates us, our members and thousands of people across Europe who are dedicated to saving lives in transport.

Occasionally, however, it is good to remember how far we’ve come and how much has already been achieved in Europe. In the 1980s and early 1990s, when there were fewer vehicles, road transport was much more lethal than today. 65,000 people died on European roads in 1993, the year ETSC was founded.

Since, then road deaths have been reduced by around 60%. That is a massive achievement and reflects the hard work of a huge range of individuals, organisations, companies, governments and the European Union. Looking back, there are a number of key moments when ETSC was a key player in shaping and driving forward the debate and pushing for meaningful transport safety policies which, without question, have saved lives.

The beginning of ETSC

The first formal recognition of the need for action on transport safety at a European level came with the Treaty of Maastricht, signed on 7 February 1992 by the 12 then-members of the European Communities. The treaty, for the first time, made improving transport safety a formal competence of the European institutions.

Two years before Maastricht, the European Transport Commissioner Karel Van Miert had put together a panel of European experts chaired by Christian Gerondeau, a former senior French road safety official, to examine what action should be taken at European level, and to lay the groundwork for setting up a Europe-wide road safety body. Thanks to a collaboration between three national organisations – DVR in Germany, PACTS in the UK and the Dutch Transport Safety Council (now the Dutch Safety Board) – ETSC was born in 1993.

ETSC’s first success was setting up an expert group on transport safety headed by Claes Tingvall: Mr Tingvall would later take on the role of president of Euro NCAP, the consumer vehicle safety testing body for Europe, and write Sweden’s Vision Zero strategy for road safety. The vehicle safety group’s first report ‘Reducing traffic injuries through vehicle safety improvements: the role of car design’, published in 1993, would be highly influential; and was followed in 1996 by formal EU proposals to improve the frontal and side-impact protection of new vehicles.

Improving vehicle safety standards

ETSC was also influential, together with others (notably the FIA), in supporting the establishment of Euro NCAP in 1997. Euro NCAP’s establishment and success was not inevitable. The car industry was vehemently opposed and refused to co-operate initially; but consumers valued an independent assessment of crashworthiness. The Euro NCAP model has now been copied around the world. Many thousands of deaths have been prevented thanks to dramatically improved vehicle safety standards and consumer ratings that have since driven competition in safety above and beyond the minimum regulatory requirements.

ETSC’s advocacy for tighter vehicle safety standards has continued until the present day. The EU agreed new standards earlier in 2019, which will require advanced technologies including Automated Emergency Braking and Intelligent Speed Assistance as standard on all new cars.

Early on, ETSC also recognised the need for strategic road safety targets and strategies. The 1997 report ‘A Strategic Road Safety Plan for the European Union’ was crucial in laying out proposals for the first European road safety targets adopted by the EU in 2001 and updated in 2011. Since 2001, road deaths in Europe have been cut in half; thanks in no small part to national and European-wide targets and strategies promoted by ETSC and its members. A new EU transport safety target and strategy to reduce serious injuries on roads across Europe is also on the table as of 2019 thanks in part to ETSC’s efforts in recent years.

Continuing efforts on transport safety in Europe

Although research and political lobbying for improved safety standards were crucial to ETSC’s first decade, the organisation’s role in promoting the sharing of best practices among EU Member States has also developed in parallel. A conference series known as ‘Best in Europe’ promoted the idea of rewarding the best policies and results. Since 2007, the Road Safety Performance Index programme (PIN) has presented an annual award to the European country making the best progress in reducing road deaths. The annual PIN ranking of progress has inspired many poorly performing countries to up their game. In October 2019, together with the European Commission, we launched a new project on sharing best practice between EU Member States known as the EU Road Safety Exchange.

A team of 10 in the Brussels secretariat now works on a wide range of safety issues including drink and drug driving, road safety at work, young road users and automated driving; as well as continuing to advocate for improved EU legislation on issues surrounding transport safety in Europe, such as cross-border enforcement of traffic offences, safe infrastructure and improved vehicle safety standards.

In 2018, there were still more than 25,000 deaths on European roads. ETSC’s work will not stop until that number is as close to zero as is possible.

Antonio Avenoso

Executive Director

European Transport Safety Council

+32 2 738 0333


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