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Deadly Divergence: How Brexit could become the new killer on Britain’s roads

Jacob Rees-Mogg says we should ignore an EU push for speed limiters in cars - but it has the potential to save more lives than seat belts

Image: The New European

Brexit is not just damaging the British economy; it can now seriously damage your health too.

From July 6th proven life-saving technologies such as autonomous emergency braking and intelligent speed assistance will be a mandatory fitment for new model passenger cars and commercial vehicles across the EU. The so-called General Safety Regulation (GSR) will be phased in over a number of years and eventually apply to all new vehicles on European roads. Once fully implemented by EU Member States, the GSR is expected to save 25,000 road deaths and 140,000 serious injuries.  

However, the UK government is undecided on whether or not to apply the new regulations and the Department for Transport is consulting on what to do. Meanwhile, the minister for Brexit opportunities, Jacob Rees Mogg told MPs last week that “we should put divergence behind us” and not look “over our shoulder saying the EU is doing this, and, therefore, we should do it too”.  He then illustrated his point by mentioning forthcoming EU vehicle safety requirements for speed limiters. His comments were clearly prompted by stories in the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail quoting Brexiteer backbench MPs warning about “Big Brother in the cockpit”. 

Lost in this ideological argument about the UK’s post Brexit scope for regulatory freedom is any focus on the need to reduce the 33,000 deaths and serious injuries that have occurred on British roads in the decade from 2010-2019. According to the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory the GSR package has the potential to have a greater safety benefit than the introduction of seat belts. They estimate it will prevent 1,762 deaths and 15,000 injuries and deliver £7 billion in net economic benefits by 2037. Crucially the 15 measures in the GSR aim to improve safety not just for vehicle occupants but for vulnerable road users – pedestrians and cyclists – too. 

That is why in February a cross party group of six former UK road safety ministers wrote to the transport secretary Grant Shapps urging him to adopt the GSR package as “the single most important thing you can do now to reduce deaths and injuries on UK roads”. And yet despite this clear advice from former ministers, the Department for Transport is opting for a consultation and running scared of Tory backbenchers in the European Research Group.  

The case for a consultation is extremely weak as all the issues around the GSR package were extensively debated by the European Council and European Parliament prior to its adoption in 2019. This legislative process involved public hearings with all road safety stakeholders, the automotive industry and detailed cost benefit analysis – incidentally carried out by the UK’s TRL. UK ministers and MEPs participated in these discussions as they occurred during the Brexit transition period. There is absolutely nothing new to discover about the GSR package that would change the clear assessment that it will substantially contribute to reducing the UK’s toll of death and serious injury on our roads. 

Tory MPs squealing about “Big Brother in the cockpit” are not just putting at risk lives on British roads but are also undermining UK leadership in promoting the future deployment of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs).  The Department of Transport wants to be a leader in CAV technology which although in its infancy will eventually transform mobility as advanced vehicle safety systems become increasingly automated. Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA) is an early example of this innovation. 

ISA equipped vehicles continuously detect the speed limit through a combination of digital maps and cameras. It prevents the driver from exceeding the limit but can be overridden if needed.  I have an ISA system in my own car and have found it both highly accurate and comfortable to use. It encourages a relaxed ‘can’t speed – won’t speed’ driving style and reduces anxiety about getting speeding tickets and saves fuel. Given that speed is the single most significant factor in fatal and serious road crashes, ISA is a really welcome technology that will also ease the burden of future police enforcement and is a ‘sine qua non’ of future CAV developments. 

When talking about ISA to MPs last week Rees Mogg also argued that “‘because the EU is doing it’ is no argument for doing anything anymore”.  But this overlooks the fact that over 50% of UK manufactured vehicles are exported to the EU and will have to be fully GSR compliant. It is costly and inefficient for UK car manufacturers to adapt their production lines to meet different regulatory requirements. That is why the chief executive of the UK’s SMMT, Mike Hawes has stated that “with the heavily integrated nature of the UK and European automotive sectors, regulatory divergence is not advantageous for either party.”  

The choice for Grant Shapps is now simple. He can cave in to the ill-informed prejudices of hard Brexiteers or act in the interests of UK road safety and the automotive industry. He should also face the fact that failure to fully implement the GSR now will be a decision to opt for higher UK road deaths and serious injuries in future. An act of regulatory divergence that will be a deadly Brexit opportunity for British road users. 

David Ward is Executive President of the Towards Zero Foundation and the Global New Car Assessment Programme

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