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Switzerland's road safety cultural divide

First publishedin World Highways
January February 2011
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Editor of World Highways
A study by Switzerland's Accident Prevention Office (BPA) has unveiled an interesting cultural phenomenon with regard to road safety. The BPA's study shows that the risk of a serious road accident is two times higher in Switzerland's Italian-speaking area than in the country's German-speaking region. In terms of road safety risks, Switzerland's French-speaking area has hazard levels lying roughly in between the German-speaking and Italian-speaking regions according to the study.

Also of note is that alcohol consumption is associated with 21% of road accidents resulting in fatalities or serious injuries in Switzerland's French-speaking area, compared to 19% in the Italian-speaking region and just 11% in the German-speaking area. In both the French-speaking area and the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, 33% of vehicle occupants do not wear seat belts. This contrasts markedly with the 20% of vehicle occupants not wearing seat belts in Switzerland's German-speaking region.

Switzerland is a country renowned for its focus on safety. Though mountainous with often severe winter driving conditions, Switzerland is small and there is little difference in its climate or its roads between the French, German or Italian-speaking regions. A reluctance to wear seat belts by Italian drivers certainly plays a part. Italy and the UK have broadly similar population sizes of around 60 million however Italy's road fatality rate was 4,237 in 2009, compared with 2,222 for the UK.

The truth be told, I have never understood the logic of those who claim mandatory seat belt use for vehicle occupants or bans on drink driving infringe their personal freedom to choose as an individual. Risk reduction for either is simple and painless. People who do not wear seat belts are taking pointless risks of fatal head injury and/or a compressed chest cavity in the event of a front or rear impact (that comprise the majority of vehicle crashes). Of the people who died on UK's roads in 2009, around 15% of whom were vehicle occupants not wearing seat belts at the time of impact. How many would have survived had they been wearing seat belts? One of my most vivid memories from my teenage years is of coming across the scene of a fatal vehicle accident early one Sunday morning. The car, with a drunk driver at the wheel, had rolled several times on a straight stretch of road following a series of curves and while every single piece of glass in the blood-spattered vehicle was smashed, its roof had not collapsed. The four occupants had, however, not worn seat belts and instead had churned around inside the car as it rolled, like concrete in a cement mixer. As the car's structure remained intact, they would in all likelihood have suffered only minor injuries had they worn seatbelts.
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