The reality is that we are focusing more on our phones and less on the traffic around us

The human safety factor

“Zero road traffic fatalities – that’s the goal.” This grand statement was uttered by German transport minister Andi Scheuer when he unveiled the federal government’s road safety programme for this decade. A quick look at the figures for the past ten years shows just how distant this target is. In 2010, there were 2.4 million traffic accidents with 288,000 casualties and 3,648 fatalities. In 2019, there were 2.7 million accidents, 387,000 casualties and 3,046 deaths, while the impact of the pandemic means there is little to be learned from the figures for 2020.

There are many reasons for these numbers, which paint a mixed picture at best, and just as many ways of improving the situation. The federal government is pinning its hopes on technology to mitigate the human risk factor by promoting the use of driver assistance systems (particularly turning assistants for trucks) and investing in automated driving – as cars drive better on their own than with a person behind the wheel – and infrastructure (telematics). Programmes aimed specifically at increasing bicycle use and enabling pedestrians to navigate traffic safely are also vital, as even the best road safety programme cannot succeed without some kind of human factor.

Gaining experience is easier said than done

Although technology is designed to make our lives easier and safer, we still need to learn how to use this technology as part of our driver training, for example. It is even more important to educate ourselves about road safety throughout our lives, as people are getting less and less experience of dealing with “complex” traffic systems early in life as children and young people. Experience shows that habits are formed by watching, noticing, practising and repeating things. For children and young people to become experienced in road safety, they need to interact with traffic not only actively but also consciously yet passively wherever possible.

This might sound trivial, but the truth is that children and young people are increasingly transported through traffic rather than navigating it themselves, whether they are going from home to nursery school, from school to sports clubs, or from riding lessons to a friend’s house. The family taxi does much more than just ferry children back and forth to school. It has a much bigger role than that. Parents do this to make life comfortable for their children while hoping that it will keep them safer, too. Yet this could not be further from the truth in the long term, as it teaches children to be dependent on others for their safety instead of navigating traffic safely and independently. This is not a new problem.

traffic accidents 2019


“Zero road traffic fatalities – that’s the goal.”

German transport minister Andi Scheuer


The trouble with smartphones

However, a fresh complication has emerged in the past ten years or so: the smartphone. With phone in hand, and headphones in ears, we no longer actively interact with traffic or even passively observe it while travelling on buses and trains or in cars. We are preoccupied with our smartphones, which always demand at least some of our attention. It goes without saying that the most important role models for children are their parents.

Yet as parents, we are also finding it increasingly difficult to look up from our phones, causing us to rapidly lose touch with the world around us. This might not be a problem for us grown-ups, as we learned our life skills in an age before smartphones. However, today’s children and young people are likely to find it more difficult to interact safely with complex traffic systems, which might offer one explanation as to why the number of people failing their driving test is steadily rising in Germany.

Get out of your car and onto the streets

What can we do about this? Given that we only just about know how to interact consciously yet passively with road traffic – by at least looking out of the car window, for example – it is all the more important to focus on actively navigating the streets as pedestrians, cyclists, on electric bikes or e-scooters, or by using public transport. The other big advantage of doing this is that it changes our perspective. If you cycle or walk instead of only driving a car, you automatically notice the traffic in an entirely different way compared with only using one mode of transport.

Our first task, then, is to put our phones down. Only use your smartphone if you are not on the move. Secondly, leave the car at home! As well as helping the environment by cutting down on emissions, it will also help you to better appreciate the world around you – and be safer in traffic. As if that wasn’t enough, you’ll be fitter, too. After all, as parents, we have an opportunity to be excellent role models.

If this all sounds very simple, it’s because it is – and the more practice we get, the easier it will become. After all, the unfortunate truth is that we are too comfortable for too much of the time.





I live near the Dutch border, which I can stand, because I work in Cologne and therefore see the Dom every day. I am a spokesperson, but I don’t just speak, I also like to write – and have been doing so for almost 50 years. Many topics that move me were already exciting back then: football or environmental protection, globalisation or social justice, digitalisation or even the whole world.

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