Road safety through the years

How driving tests, drink laws and car tyres have made our roads better

It wasn’t that long ago that you could drive on UK roads without passing a test. You kept a licence on your possession, yes, but you didn’t actually need to pass a practical driving test to receive it. 

All that changed in 1935 when the Road Traffic Act came into effect. Casualties dropped almost immediately, and while parts of the assessment have evolved over time, the fact remains that a single law made UK roads safer. 
It’s not the only law, however. This campaign is dedicated to the pieces of legislation that have changed lives. 

road safety infographic
road safety infographic - mobile

(Above) The most impactful laws – ranked in descending order.

In the campaign to follow, we analyse the data in the table above. While we’re at it, we explain why young motorists are most at risk following their test, why drink driving might be in decline, and why car tyres are so important to road safety.  

Driving tests have made a difference – and continue to evolve 

It became mandatory to take a driving test on June 1, 1935. You met the instructor at a public place (there were no test centres), and performed manoeuvres like an emergency stop, a hill start and a three-point turn. The pass rate was 63% . 
Fatalities dropped by 12.9% that year.

Today, the driving test has evolved. You no longer perform a three-point turn but spend longer on the open roads and in a nod to modern times, you’re also asked to use a sat nav. 

Approximately 1.6 million people take the practical test every year and the pass mark is about 45%  on the first attempt.

You’re more likely to pass it on your second go, though beyond this point, the likelihood decreases. 

Younger drivers are most at risk of injuring themselves on the road 

Newly qualified drivers between 17-21 still account for roughly a third of all accidents on the roads. This is according to Steve Ferris, a program manager analyst within the DriveStart team at Agilysis Limited. “Driving is the leading cause of death for young people internationally. And we know it’s not drink related – it’s down to a lack of experience.”

Two big factors are in play: speed (especially at night) and social pressure (driving recklessly to impress peers). Both are mitigated the more experience you get – something all young drivers are lacking.

Ferris says that if you’re a young learner, you should practice as much as possible before taking your test, because this is the way you learn to handle live situations. Ironically, with tests suspended during lockdown, this has given novice drivers the chance to do just that.

The drink driving limit hasn’t changed in 50 years – and continues to work

In 1967, the Road Safety Act made it an offence to drive – or attempt to drive – any vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration in excess of 80mg per 100ml of blood. For the average-sized male, that’s two or three drinks an hour before setting off, though mileage will vary based on your sex, weight and alcohol tolerance. 
Before 1967, no limit had been set. 

The Road Safety Act has made our roads safer. As the table above shows, fatalities on UK roads dropped by 8.4% the year the Act was passed, and these numbers have been in steady in decline ever since. For reference, 1979 saw 31,420 drink-driving related incidents (1,640 of which were fatal). In 2016, there were 9,040 incidents with 230  fatalities, showing a staggering 86% drop. 

“Very few people drink and drive nowadays,” analyst Steve Ferris says. “Fewer than 10% of fatalities on the road involve alcohol – a small percentage, considering how dangerous it is.” This in part, Ferris believes, is because young people no longer drink as much as they used to.
Technology has also made a difference: we can now order an Uber in seconds and leave the driving to someone else.

Motorways helped people move faster – but have brought certain challenges

The opening of the M1 in 1959 was a breakthrough for Britain’s transportation network, but it didn’t have a speed limit until 1973, when an oil crisis meant people were required to cap their pace. 
That said, it took until 2018 for learner drivers to be permitted to practice on a motorway. 

The good news is that cars are getting safer

Motorway driving invites higher speeds, and higher speeds give us less time to respond, but cars are getting safer.

  • Passenger compartments are designed to better withstand head-on collisions
  • Modern airbags, brakes and collision detection systems can minimise the impact of a crash, or prevent it from happening altogether 
  • Many new cars have driverless features that remove the potential for human error altogether. This, Ferris believes, is a crucial point, as human error is often the reason an accident happens in the first place
  • Today, we all wear seat belts, which seems like an obvious point, until you realise that cars in the ‘60s and ‘70s had them too, but the law didn’t make it mandatory to wear one.

New cars also make use of newer tyre technology, a hugely important step, as it’s the only part of the car to have contact with the road.

 3 ways to minimise your risk on the road

Check your speed 

“Speed is a major factor [in accidents] – probably the biggest,” Steve Ferris says. So, if you’re travelling at 60 miles an hour rather than 50 miles an hour, the forces which are involved are squared for every 10 miles an hour – which is a huge jump.” 
Going faster not only gives you less time to react, but also increases the severity of a crash in the unfortunate event of one happening.  

While roads have been less congested during the pandemic – resist the temptation to depress the accelerator harder.

Make sure your tyres are good working condition 

“You can have the best car in the world, but if the point of contact on the road is compromised, it’s not going to make any difference,” Ferris says.

  1. Look out for signs of wear and tear on a regular basis – car tyres don’t have a fixed lifespan and they’re bearing a heavy load
  2. Tyre pressure should be checked at least once a month and before a long trip 
  3. After five years, get your tyres inspected by professionals annually 
  4. Change a tyre if the tread depth is below the legal limit. Read our companion article on how to do this.  
  5. Spare tyres should be replaced, as they are only a temporary solution


Buy a newer car if possible

If you’re getting a car for you or your child, try and get a 2010s model. 

“The difference in fatality rates between vehicles built prior to 1984 is more than double that recorded for models sold between 2013 and 2017,” a report in America noted .

Frequency of fatalities in America by model year :
•    1984 and earlier: 55%
•    1985-1992: 53%
•    1993-1997: 46%
•    1997-2002: 42%
•    2003-2007: 36%
•    2008-2012: 31%
•    2013-2017: 26%

In the future, Ferris predicts that fewer people will own a car and drive it to work every day, instead relying on driverless cabs to pick them up and drop them off. These AI-controlled machines will accurately control distance and speed and rely on a combination of cameras and sensors to make the perfect judgement in milliseconds.

Petrolheads will have a run-around saved for the weekend, sure, but there will be fewer instances of human error – simply because there will be fewer people operating their own cars.

Like modern aeroplanes, the car of the future will have more technology onboard and more ways to keep us safe. In the end, that can only be a good thing. 


For more information about our methodology and data analysis, please see the full dataset here.