January 2nd, 2009

A seven-year-old Israeli schoolboy, Udi Hochberg from Tel Aviv, has a travel safety tip for the Three Wise Men:


Story from The Guardian, photo Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters.

Similar fluorescent vests are compulsory car equipment in Italy and Spain: every human who gets out of your car on a roadside must wear one. (I don’t know about camels.) They are very cheap: €3 or so retail, obviously less in bulk, so they would make good promotional gifts.

We are too blasé about road accidents. The death toll in the USA from them was 42,642 in 2006, in the UK 3,298, the whole EU-24 39,018. (Data from the OECD.) Over the Christmas holiday season, you would expect over a thousand American deaths.

The injury burden is just as serious. The total number of injuries in the USA from road accidents (same source) in 2006 was 2.6 million. Over a lifetime, your chances of being injured in a road accident are greater than evens. The majority of injuries are minor ones, bruises, shock and broken collar-bones, but a tenth are serious ones requiring hospitalisation, possibly with long-term consequences. The UK ratio of serious injury to deaths was 10:1 in 2002. Applied to the USA, that would make 420,000 serious injuries a year.

The (US) National Safety Council estimated the total cost of accidents (road, home, and work) in the USA at $625 bn in 2005. 41% of the deaths were from road accidents, but only 10% of the injuries. As a first approximation, let’s say a quarter of the accident costs came from road accidents: $156 bn. Serious money.

Accident rates and (proportional) economic burdens are even higher in many developing countries like India.

The main causes are well-known: alcohol, speed, fatigue, distraction and youth. The policy responses are also standard: driver education, policing, road design (including making urban environments safer for pedestrians and cyclists), and better public transport. The vest idea won’t make a big difference – but it’s still worth doing: 0.1% of 42,000 would be 42 lives.

Here’s another proposal on the same lines: embedding cat’s eyes in road surfaces.

Americans apparently use the inferior Bott’s dot, a flimsy non-reflective plastic dome that won’t stand up to snowploughs. A proper cat’s eye is much tougher (and more expensive). The original Yorkshire model, invented by Percy Shaw of Halifax in 1934, has a 5-kilo steel case holding the reflector in a compressible rubber insert.

cat'e eye closeup.jpg

Modern plastic ones are brighter, even with solar-powered LEDS, but not quite so tough.

The difference cat’s eyes make to nighttime visibility can be seen from this photo of solar-assisted cat’s eyes. In bad weather, the effect is even greater with any variety.


In Britain, a line of cat’s eyes marks every motorway lane divider and the centre and kerb lines of most two-lane blacktops. They are spreading along Spanish autovias, and even in France. A contender in last year’s Tour de France, Alejandro Valverde, crashed after hitting one in wet and foggy Brittany. Bad luck, but not a compelling reason to hold back.

A hundred million cat’s eyes would strike me as a good infrastructure investment for Obama’s stimulus package: quick to start, labour-intensive, with a real long-term payoff – and highly visible. Literally.

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