Social factors in road safety

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Social factors in road safety policy

This report has pointed out areas where there are links between road safety and public health activities

Social Factors in Road Safety is a policy paper by The Royal Society for the Prevention Of Accidents. This policy paper has two main objectives:

  1. To review and compile information on the scale of injury inequality and the social factors that create the inequalities
  2. To produce evidence and recommendations that will assist RoSPA and other road safety organisations to tackle the social factors that cause injury inequalities

Executive summary

There is a significant body of evidence which shows how health is unequally distributed through society, especially between socioeconomic groups where the lower a person's social position, the more at risk they are of ill health. Reducing inequalities in health by addressing some of the social factors that cause them has become an explicit objective of many activities to improve health and reduce illness.

Action on reducing the social gradient of health is also a concern for the fields of road safety and injury prevention as a whole, given that there is a similar body of evidence showing how injury risk is unevenly distributed across society in a similar way to illness. Some research has shown that the difference in injury rates between the most affluent and most deprived groups has recently been increasing.

One of the outcome indicators to monitor the success of the recent Strategic Framework for Road Safety (DfT 2011) is a comparison of the number of fatalities and serious injuries between the 10% most and 10% least deprived areas.

Social causes of injuries and the range of interventions to address them can be highly complex, and the process by which different social factors increase the risk of injury is sometimes unclear, even when there is good evidence that shows the increased risk.

One way of examining how social factors influence injury is to study them on different 'levels' depending on how removed they are from an individual. For example, factors that influence injury risk might exist within

  • National policies, such as economic strategies
  • The conditions in which an individual lives and works
  • The social and community networks between individuals
  • An individual's lifestyle

These wider social factors at higher levels should be seen as part of the overall burden of injury. Similarly, the factors that prevent effective interventions from being implemented also contribute to the overall number of injuries.

Why is there inequality in injury?

This paper looks at two broad groupings of social factors

  • The road environment, habitation and local area
  • Social environment and deprivation

Exposure to danger is another factor which can vary between socioeconomic groups. For example, children in families in the lowest quarter of income cross 50% more roads than those families in the highest quarter.

There are several ways that deprivation and the social environment can influence injury risk.

A lack of money can impact on a family's ability to invest in safety, either by purchasing products which could make their environment safer, or by replacing older products. This can also limit the effectiveness of legislative approaches to improving safety in lower socioeconomic groups, for example safety technology on new vehicles may be unaffordable for these groups.

Several researchers have commented on how family structure influences the risk of injury with children in both single parent families and large families being more at risk. Reduced parental supervision and family disturbances that upset the child were linked to an increased risk. The lack of support for some single parent families is another potential cause of increased injuries. Lone parents can find themselves in a 'poverty trap' where paid employment offered the best way to improve the standard of living for the family but the lack of affordable day care limited the employment opportunities. There are strong evaluation studies of programmes which reduced the frequency of injury to children in single parent families by offering support to mothers with young children.

Some road safety interventions have been criticised for not being targeted at the least affluent groups, for example, by using inappropriate ways to communicate safety messages.

The physical environment can greatly influence the number injuries and their severity.

This can be especially true in areas that were built before cars were commonplace and where layout and available space limits how much can be done to re-engineer the road and make it safer. Victorian terraced houses which are typically found in the most deprived areas of the West Midlands are one example.

Studies have found higher levels of street recreation amongst lower socioeconomic groups, due to the lack of garden space and parental concern that public areas such as parks are unsafe. Many parents believed that changing land use also limited the areas where children could play and that local parks had been converted into car parks.

Much of the available research is quite old; although many of the social factors that cause injury inequality also re-occur in the more recent research.

Addressing inequality in prevention work

The effects of wider social factors on injury have a large number of implications for road safety activities, although there can be considerable difficulties in addressing inequality and deprivation. There are relatively few published evaluations of programmes that have tried to reduce injury inequality.

However, road safety interventions can be designed to address the effects that inequality can have on injury risk, and can measure any changes as part of the evaluation.

In order to address inequalities in health, packages of measures may be more successful than single initiatives.

Community involvement in programmes is one way to empower individuals, groups or communities to change some of the wider influences to their health. This can ensure the relevance of the campaign and address some of the barriers to adopting safer behaviours.

Road safety interventions can attempt to change some of these wider determinants of safety. The 10 principles of effective safety education in schools developed by RoSPA and the PHSE Association identify effective ways of empowering young people by involving them in real decisions to help them stay safe, and using active learning which draws on the learner's personal experience.

This report has pointed out areas where there are links between road safety and public health activities, but there are more professions and sections of Local Government who can be engaged by road safety professionals to make sure road safety is considered as part of their policy process.

Policy statements

Based on this review of evidence, five broad policy recommendations have been made:

  1. In order to continue the efforts to reduce to the number of road casualties, the social factors that cause injury need to be tackled in a systematic way by organisations responsible for road safety.
  2. Common approaches to improving the health, wellbeing and the safety of individuals and communities need to be identified, and closer ties and partnership working between road safety and health professionals should be developed at all levels of work
  3. Ways of identifying the effects of local and national government policies on road traffic injury need to be developed in order to identify opportunities to improve and protect road safety within them
  4. Education interventions need to help individuals and communities to overcome the social factors which act as barriers to safer behaviours and empowering them to have more control over these factors is key
  5. Wider use of evaluation on road safety projects is essential to identify which ones are more successful at tackling inequalities.

You can also download an Overview of Social Factors in Road Safety (PDF 59kb)


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