In 2021, 223 lives were lost on the roads in Finland. Based on the number of registered vehicles, the ratio is 3.7 deaths for every 100,000 registered vehicles. The number of registered vehicles has tripled in 40 years and road deaths have more than halved over the same period.
Figure 1 shows the ratio of road deaths in relation to the number of vehicles (per 100,000 registered vehicles) between 1980 and 2021 and the rolling three-month average values. In addition, the transparent column in the diagram indicates the Vision Zero to 2030. Finland has committed to the EU’s Vision Zero ambition, which aims to move as closely as possible to zero fatalities in road transport by 2050. The intermediate goal is to halve, compared to 2020 levels, the number of road deaths and serious injuries by 2030.
The road traffic death rate measured in the way described above was almost one tenth of the level in 1981. If the 1970s had been included, the improvement would have been even more dramatic. Back in the early 1970s Finland was still one of the world’s most dangerous countries for road traffic. This was partly explained by poor roads and the growth in the number of vehicles on the roads.
Figure 1. Road traffic deaths per 100,000 registered vehicles * Data source: Statistics Finland.
* All cars, mopeds and motorcycles, snowmobiles, tractors, motorised mobile machinery, three- and four wheeled all-terrain vehicles L5/L5e, light four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles L6e and four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles L7e.
The good trend in road traffic deaths is highlighted in built-up areas, where 57 people lost their lives in in 2021 compared to 217 in 1981. The figure is down to around a quarter in just a few decades. In 2021, around a quarter (26%) of road traffic deaths occurred in built-up areas, whereas in 1981, the figure was more than one in every three (39%).
Despite the encouraging trend in road traffic safety, especially in the long term, we shouldn’t be lulled into a sense of complacency. Road traffic in Finland shows a potential risk that could weaken the status of road traffic safety in the future.
More and more young people suspected of traffic offences have come to the notice of the police and this is likely to be the case going forward if a pending amendment to lower the age limit for a category B driving licence goes ahead. In future, all 17-year-olds could obtain a category B driving licences subject to the consent of their guardian.
If we compare the ratio of young people aged 17-19 years suspected of traffic offences to the number of valid category B driving licences, the level of traffic offences committed by young people in 2020-2021, or in practice the corona period, has remained relatively steady, averaging around 15 suspected offences per thousand driving licences. The corresponding figure for 17-year-olds was 30, for 18-year-olds around 15 and for 19-year-olds 10. In other words, the rate for 17-year-olds was 2-3 times higher when compared to slightly older age cohorts. Over the past two years, around 11,000 young people aged 17 had a category B driving licence, and for 18-19-year-olds the figure was 30,000-40,000 per cohort.
The 2021 PIN (Road Safety Performance Index) report, published by the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC) in 2021, looked at the status of road traffic safety among 15-30-year olds in Europe. The report found that young driver risks were due to inexperience, immaturity and age as well as lifestyle related to gender. One of the report’s recommendations was not to lower the age limit for a driving licence, as the data shows that starting independent, unrestricted driving at a young age, and especially under the age of 18, increases the risk of ending up in a fatal accident.
Between 2016 and 2020, a road traffic accident was the most common (22%) form of death of 15-19-year-olds after suicide (28%). It should be remembered that the overrepresentation of young drivers in road traffic accident and crime statistics is not a new phenomenon.
Attitudes are often a major underlying factor in road traffic accidents and may affect individual behaviour more than traffic skills. The police strive to influence the road traffic safety of young drivers by among other things continuous, long-term enforcement, communication and education. Operating in traffic calls for a knowledge of traffic rules, the skill to operate and control modes of transport as well as an ability to assess road traffic risks and operating models from one’s own perspective and that of others.
Road traffic safety also depends on what happens in an individual’s life off the road. For example, life management and health issues or personality traits are also reflected in road traffic. According to the Government Report on Internal Security, marginalisation, social unease and multiple deprivation are still the biggest threats to Finland’s internal security. These are also reflected in driving-related phenomena on the road.
Social exclusion is also reflected in phenomena relating to driving health. Road traffic accidents resulting in death often involve risk factors affecting driving health such as risks relating to a driver’s state of mind and medication. Road traffic safety is closely related to mental health and substance work. In future, the prevention of social exclusion must be promoted even more strongly as must referral to treatment. The police must increasingly address driving health issues and seek to influence these through their own traffic enforcement and safety work. It is important for the police to identify, as part of normal police operations, those holders of the right to drive who suffer from, for example, mental health and intoxicant dependency, where there is reason to suspect that their state of health makes them incapable of operating a vehicle safely.
Alcohol, drugs and medicines used for intoxication purposes are the most significant risk factors not just in fatal road accidents but also in traffic otherwise. Although substance control is an important part of traffic enforcement, there is not always enough time for it. Urgent missions involving the maintenance of public order and safety take up a lot of resources – despite the fact that maintaining road traffic enforcement and safety are basic duties of both the traffic police and control and emergency operations.
The Vision Zero referred to above is linked to the road traffic safety strategy being prepared at the national level in cross-administrative stakeholder cooperation and the relevant government resolution. The strategy aims to improve road traffic safety for all modes of transport.
Road traffic is safer than ever, especially in built-up areas. Reaching the above ambition to halve the number of fatalities is a somewhat challenging task requiring the contribution of the police and road users, among others. Traffic safety concerns everyone in society: no-one should have to feel unsafe when mobile irrespective of the mode of transport.
Mika Sutela Data analyst, LLD, Adjunct professor National Police Board Twitter @SutelaMika
European Road Safety Council, Reducing road deaths among young people aged 15 to 30. PIN Flash Report 41. October 2021.
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