In a hurry to die and tired of life?

Mika Sutela Pasi Rissanen Published Date 2.2.2024 14.00 Blog

Finnish drivers drive faster than average, when tired and hold a mobile phone when driving.

An extensive international ESRA (E-Survey of Road Users' Attitudes) surveys traffic behaviour, attitudes and opinions in different countries. The latest results were collected during 2023. More than 42,000 road users from 39 countries (22 European countries) responded to the survey. The respondents were asked both about their own behaviour in traffic during the past 30 days and how acceptable they considered different things.

The survey does not paint a positive picture of the speed choices of Finns. Three out of four Finnish drivers said they had speeded at least once in the previous 30 days before responding to the survey. This is well above the average for the participating countries. The driving speed in the prevailing conditions is also reported to have been too high more often than average.

In addition to speed, the weaknesses of Finnish drivers include mobile phones and fatigue. Nearly half (46%) of Finnish drivers had talked on their mobile phone while holding it when driving in the previous 30 days before responding to the survey. The share is 20 percentage points higher than the average for the participating countries. Also, 41% of Finnish drivers said they had read messages, social media updates or news.

A tired driver behind the wheel pushes on regardless, despite insufficient functional capacity. During the previous month preceding their response, nearly one in three Finns said that they had been so tired when driving that they had found it hard to keep their eyes open. The survey indicates that driving when tired seems to be quite common, and the question arises as to whether people even generally regard it as unacceptable, whether they know that it is prohibited by law and whether they understand that fatigue increases the risk of accidents.

According to the study, however, people in Finland drive under the influence of alcohol less often than average. Drink driving is also viewed with disapproval, whereas cycling while under the influence is more permissible.

In Finland, the most typical immediate risk factor in motor vehicle accidents is a driving error, such as a too sudden and violent steering movement or being in the wrong lane. Underlying risks are often the explanation for these errors. An underlying risk, a risk factor affecting the driver's condition and behaviour, was involved in 80% of accidents in 2022. The most typical individual underlying risks in this group were the influence of alcohol (30% of accidents), illness (17% of accidents) and suicidal behaviour (15% of accidents). (Sihvola 2023.)

Hardly any change in road traffic fatalities in different road user groups

According to preliminary data, there were 173 fatalities on Finnish roads in 2023 (Statistics Finland 2024). Although the number of road traffic fatalities began to decrease towards the end of the first decade of the 2000s, more than three hundred people still lost their lives on the roads in 2008 (see Figure 1). The trend in the number mainly correlates with recorded traffic offences. The number of traffic offences recorded by the police, like road traffic fatalities, has nearly halved since 2004.

The number of people killed in road traffic in the years 2004-2023. Year 2004 deaths 375, year 2005 deaths 379, year 2006 deaths 336, year 2007 deaths 380, year 2008 deaths 344, year 2009 deaths 279, year 2010 deaths 272, year 2011 deaths 292, year 2012 deaths 25 5, year 2013 dead 258, year 2014 deaths 229, year 2015 deaths 270, year 2016 deaths 258, year 2017 deaths 238, year 2018 deaths 239, year 2019 deaths 211, year 2020 deaths 233, year 2021 deaths 225, year 2022 deaths 19 6, year 2023 dead 173. Data source Statistics Finland.

Figure 1. Road traffic fatalities in Finland 2004–2023.

Over the past 20 years, however, there have been no major changes in road traffic fatalities by road user group. Fatalities involving cars and vans have steadily accounted for around 60% of all road traffic fatalities. Vulnerable road users, i.e. pedestrians and cyclists, have accounted for around one fifth of all road fatalities (see Figure 2). For young people (aged under 25), the share of fatalities involving cars and vans has been slightly higher on average, but there has been more annual variation. For young people, the share of vulnerable traffic has averaged lower than for the population as a whole, but for mopeds/motorcycles, the share has been higher.

Relative proportions of road traffic fatalities 2004-2023. Data source Statistics Finland.

Figure 2. Relative shares (%) of road traffic fatalities by road user group in all age groups and young people (aged under 25), 2004-2023.

Between 2020 and 2022, an average of 214 people lost their lives in road traffic in Sweden and 215 in Finland, i.e. practically the same number. Relative to the population, however, the number is double in Finland (3.9 vs. 2). In Sweden, too, fatalities involving cars and vans have constituted by far the largest group of road users in road traffic fatalities over the past twenty years, with a relative share of around 57%. As in Finland, the combined share of pedestrian and cyclist deaths has accounted for around one-fifth of all road traffic fatalities. So even though the situation in Sweden is considerably better in terms of road traffic fatalities than in Finland, the percentages of different road user groups in fatalities are in practice similar.

There are understandably differences in legislation in Finland and Sweden in many respects, such as the constituent elements of traffic offences and sanctions. Regulatory differences are not enough to explain much of the difference in road traffic fatalities.

The statistics raise questions as to why the relative share of fatalities involving cars and vans does not fall faster than others, as there is clear improvement in car safety technology, for example. In addition, the data raises questions about the extent to which developments in transport infrastructure or police traffic enforcement have influenced the development of the number of road traffic fatalities. Traffic volumes have increased at the same time, at least for these road user groups, so does that partly explain why the relative share is not falling, despite other positive developments? Or have improvements in infrastructure or the development of police enforcement have been offset by the increase in traffic volumes? We might also ask whether, despite the prevailing positive developments surrounding road user groups, there is a certain number of people every year who are in a hurry to die and tired of life.

Underlying risk related to driver condition involved in a large share of fatal accidents

Road accident investigation teams assess the risk factors underlying fatal accidents on the basis of their investigation. The underlying risk factor explains the immediate risk by enabling it. Underlying risks relate to the road user (e.g. fatigue, intoxication, speeding). An underlying risk related to the driver's condition, such as alcohol or fatigue, was involved in 80% of motor vehicle accidents investigated by investigation teams in 2022. Underlying risks related to driving speed (e.g. speeding, excessive speed given the conditions, skill or vehicle) were present in 55% of accidents. (Sihvola 2023.)

In addition to intoxication, speeding has been one of the typical individual risk factors in accidents caused by intoxicated drivers investigated by road accident investigation teams. Speeding is a significant risk factor for road accidents. Speeding leads to loss of vehicle control and more serious collisions. Speeding accounted for an average of almost half (43%) of the main causes of fatal accidents in Finland between 2003 and 2022 (Sihvola 2023). The ESRA survey found that three out of four Finnish drivers said they had been speeding well above average. What is the significance of Finns' lax attitude towards speed limits in fatal traffic accidents?

Driving under the influence of alcohol and narcotics is a significant risk factor for road accidents. Driving while intoxicated affects the driver's attention, ability to react and decision-making. An average of one in four (27%) fatal accidents in Finland between 2003 and 2022 was caused as a result of being under the influence of alcohol (Sihvola 2023). The fact that people drive cars when intoxicated less often than average in Finland will hopefully have an impact on the number of fatal traffic accidents. Although drink driving is less common in Finland than in the reference countries, intoxicants are another significant factor in fatal accidents, as is the case in many other European countries.

In 2022, the percentage of drivers under the influence of alcohol was 31% and that of those speeding by at least 10 km/h was 59%. The percentages of both intoxicated and speeding drivers were slightly higher than usual. Of the main perpetrators, 29% were both under the influence of alcohol and speeding. (Sihvola 2023.)

Also, fatigue often affects the actions of an intoxicated driver. Driving when tired in itself can impair the driver's attention and ability to react, increasing the risk of accidents. The driver's condition is essentially related to their state of health and associated illnesses, the effects of which can also be seen in traffic. 

Many accidents are caused by factors related to the driver's state of health, such as sudden attacks of illness or mental illness. Of the fatal road traffic accidents investigated in 2022, 29 (approx. 15%) were accidents in which the victim died of a seizure instead of accidental injuries. (Sihvola 2023.)

Failure to wear a seat belt or safety device would save lives. Not wearing a seat belt increases the risk of injury in the event of an accident. In Finland, seat belts are mandatory for all car passengers. In 2022, one third (33%) of drivers and passengers in cars and vans involved in fatal motor vehicle accidents were not wearing seat belts at the time of the accident. 39% (N = 45) of those who died were not wearing a seat belt. Wearing a seat belt would have saved 38% of these with different probabilities (N = 17). (Sihvola 2023.)

Traffic enforcement to make traffic safer

One of the key objectives of police traffic enforcement is to promote traffic safety. The task of the police is to monitor compliance with traffic rules and reduce the number of traffic accidents.
Traffic enforcement carried out by the police alone will not make traffic safer, but its significance can be understood if you consider what the situation would be if traffic enforcement was not carried out at all in Finland. 

The aim of speed enforcement is to curb speeding and thus reduce the number of traffic accidents and their severity. The police will target enforcement in a data-driven manner at crash-prone locations at times when the risks of even more serious consequences are high.

The police focus on identifying, detecting and preventing drivers driving under the influence of alcohol and narcotics. The police carry out enforcement both as crackdowns and as targeted enforcement, for example, in areas where it is known, based on analysis, that vehicle drivers drive while intoxicated. The monitoring of intoxicated drivers essentially involves monitoring both the driver's fitness to drive and state of fatigue.

Monitoring fitness to drive aims to identify people who may be too ill or in poor physical or mental condition to drive safely. If the driver's state of health makes them unfit to drive, they may endanger the life and health of others. Many accidents are caused by factors related to the driver's state of health, such as sudden attacks of illness or mental illness. Enforcement of fitness to drive is particularly important for young and older drivers and professional drivers, who may be at greater risk due to health issues.

An examination of mortality among road user groups makes it seem important to address car and vulnerable road users in particular if we want to achieve a significant reduction in road traffic fatalities. Road traffic fatalities can be prevented, for example, through traffic control, infrastructure planning and implementation that increases safety, speed limits, training and education, but the most important way to prevent traffic fatalities are road users themselves. Various measures must be taken to make Finnish traffic culture and attitudes on the road more conducive to the promotion of road safety.

Pasi Rissanen
Assistant Police Commissioner
National Police Board

Mika Sutela
National Police Board