2.8 - Legislation, Incentives, Standards

Version 7



    Legislation and regulations constitute one of the main tools available to a country wishing to reduce the number of people injured or killed in road accidents each year.

    Data on major causes of road accidents are accurately available in statistical detail. Such data, updated regularly, help countries develop laws and standards to reduce identified risks and accident rates.

    The most common example is speeding, a factor involved as the prime cause in more than 30 % of fatal accidents, according to the European Union. Throughout the world, this risk is the subject of numerous laws in a variety of fields: speed limits on the road; specific limits for young drivers; establishment of a safe distance between two vehicles; codes on the training and tests required to obtain a driver's license; limits and standards imposed on car manufacturers and the automotive supply industry, as well as on road builders, managers and concession holders; authorization or specification for new equipment (speed limiters and adaptive speed controls, safety distance controls, etc.).

    This example shows that legislation and regulations may have an impact at numerous levels: banning enforcing, and punishing (speed limits), acting on behaviors (driver's licenses), warning and informing (road signage), developing vehicle safety, experimenting with, and disseminating new technologies (speed limiters and adaptive speed controls), improving infrastructure quality, etc.

    Depending on the country, road legislation is more or less binding, and has a wider or narrower scope. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) in its report on global road safety, less than 50 % of countries have legislation to fight against the 5 major factors in road risk: driving under the influence, speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, not wearing a helmet, and no child safety devices. And only 15 % of countries boast laws that have a really global scope.

    Everywhere however, and even more so in the poorest countries where road mortality hits hard, legislation and regulations often expand and become more restrictive. According to the WHO report, 153 countries, i.e. 86 % of the sample studied, have stated that today they have a road safety agency, and 58 % have a road safety strategy.

    In this sense, international action, coordination among countries, major organizations' expertise and finance (UN, World Bank, WHO and numerous NGOs, etc.) are important levers that can help accelerate the enactment of effective laws and standards to protect from the scourge of road accidents.



    A- In developed countries, harmonizing laws and standards is a priority

    In OECD countries, standards and laws apply to multiple fields and countless players: drivers, passengers, driving schools, carmakers, road managers, transport companies, road departments, etc. In general, the best results are obtained from the association of different bodies of laws and standards, which have diverse objectives (car safety, road safety, driver safety, etc.). This association has a decisive role in the reduction of road mortality, and at several levels:


    Preventing risky behavior

    This is the first goal of road legislation: to prevent, counteract and penalize any behavior and situation that creates the risk of an accident, for the individual and for others. In this sense, accident studies and research are crucial: they help accurately gauge accident causes, summarize major risks, and determine the long-term effectiveness of legislative and regulatory responses.

    Risks and legislative responses: the case of France

    (Main) Risk Factors

    Legislative and Regulatory Measures

    Driving under the influence of alcohol

    . Ban on driving with blood alcohol levels over a certain threshold: 0.5 g. alcohol / liter of blood.

    . Compulsory installation of an alcohol ignition lock device for persons convicted of driving under the influence (Decree of 5 September 2011)


    . Progressively increasing the severity of penalties for speeding

    . Higher number of fixed and mobile radars

    Failure to comply with safe distance

    Obligation to keep a safe distance away from the preceding vehicle, corresponding to the speed driven by the driver's vehicle for at least 2 seconds (Decree of 23 November 2001)

    Mechanical failure

    Steady extension of the scope of the compulsory technical check, created by Order of 18 June 1991

    Failure to wear seat belt

    . Obligation to wear front seatbelts (1979) and back seatbelts (1990)

    . Compulsory presence of provisions to secure children (Decree of 29 November 2006)

    . Obligation to reserve a seat equipped with a safety seat belt for each child travelling (1st January 2008). In the past it was possible to secure 2 children under 10 years of age with the same safety belt.

    Driver telephone use

    Ban on the use of hand-held telephones while driving (Decree of 3 January 2012)

    Driver tiredness and drowsiness

    No text officially bans or limits driving in a state of tiredness However, a penalty may be applied on the basis of section R412-6 of the Highway Code.


    Increasing vehicle safety

    Brake assist, electronic stability control, adaptive cruise control, lateral control and lane keeping, advanced lighting system, head-up display, etc. These devices and others are recent developments and may have a major role in vehicle safety and reliability. Their widespread use depends on a standardization, approval or legislative approval process (where necessary, to make the innovation compulsory), as was the case in the past for safety seat belts, airbags, ABS, etc. This is a determining factor for road safety: legislation and regulations need to evolve regularly, in line with technological progress achieved by car manufacturers and the automotive supply industry.  

    Example: The Electronic Stability Program (ESP) is an active safety unit that helps correct the trajectory of the car by intervening at the brake and engine torque levels. In November 2011, the European Union ruled that this device was compulsory for all new models applying for approval. And, from November 2014, all new models sold in the EU will need to be equipped with an ESP.

    Improving infrastructure quality

    Laws and standards also have major impact on road infrastructure quality and safety. Signage, quality of surfacing, road lighting, public thoroughfare intervention modes, round-about and traffic calming device placement, video-surveillance, limitation of fixed obstacles on the side of the road, etc. These constitute the road environment which, in many countries, is subject to codes and regulations.

    Example: In the United States of America, a law passed in 2007 forces all the States and communities in the country to adopt new road signage by 2018; the signs will be made of reflector material and will bear uniform typography. Thus, the City of New York will be investing close to 28 million dollars to change all its signs.

    Protecting vulnerable users

    Pedestrians, cyclists and two-wheel drivers are among the victims of road accidents. A WHO study has shown that this group represents 46 % of people killed on the road globally. Legislative and regulatory efforts are also intensifying to try to protect vulnerable users' life and health, with increasingly strict speed limits, applied in densely populated areas. According to the WHO study, a pedestrian who is run over by a car moving at more than 45 km/h, has a less than 50 % chance of survival. If the car is moving at less than 30 km/h, the survival chances increase to 90 %.  A more recent study by the American Automobile Association has shown that the risk of serious injury is high (50 %) even at 50 km/h, i.e. the legal speed limit in many urban areas:

    Pedestrian hit by a car moving at (1) :

    Risk of serious injury

    Pedestrian hit by a car moving at :

    Risk of death

    25 km/h (16 m/h)

    10 %

    37 km/h (23 m/h)

    10 %

    37 km/h (23 m/h)

    25 %

    51 km/h (25 m/h)

    25 %

    50 km/h (31m/h)

    50 %

    67 km/h (42 m/h)

    50 %

    62 km/h (39 m/h)

    75 %

    80 km/h (50 m/h)

    75 %

    73 km/h (46 m/h)

    90 %

    93 km/h (58 m/h)

    90 %

    (1) m/h: miles per hour. 1 mile = 1.6 km

    In countries with more advanced road safety systems, these reports generally lead to finely tuned legislative provisions and, at the local government level, to speed controls (reinforced signage, traffic calming devices, roundabouts, radars, etc.) tailored to the accidents in a city, a quarter, or even a street. Public authorities also use this type of study to accelerate or generalize the launch of more promising innovations and to enact new limitations. The European Union for example, adopted in 2005 a directive that imposes thresholds for the construction of structures for the front of the vehicle, in order to reduce the shock suffered by pedestrians in case of impact. This directive applies to all new vehicles sold in the Union since 31 December 2012. For the longer term, regulations and standards are on the horizon, which will incorporate pedestrian airbags in vehicles; these are already available for some models.

    B- Emerging Countries: Laws require strengthening


    Despite harmonization efforts, particularly under the umbrella of major international organizations (UN, World Bank, WHO, etc.) or within the framework of supranational bodies (European Union, ASEAN, UNASUR, etc.), national legislations and regulations remain highly diverse both in nature and in scope, with increased disparities in emerging countries. In some countries in fact, legislation seems to be lagging behind motor traffic development. This gap is generating lack of safety on the roads. According to WHO, more than 90 % of deaths caused by road accidents happen in low- or middle-income countries.



    Road mortality rate

    (per 100,000 inhabitants)

    High-income country


    Middle-income country


    Low-income country


    Source: WHO

    These legal inequalities, with all their attendant health and social implications, are especially illustrated in three of the main road prevention and safety fields: the fight against speeding, the fight against driving under the influence and the fight to get people to wear their seatbelts

    The fight against speeding

    Speed limits are considered to be one of the most efficient tools to help reduce both the number of accidents and their consequences. According to a study by the Transport Research Center, a 5 % increase in the average speed on the road causes an increase of approximately 10 % in the number of non-fatal accidents and 20 % in the number of fatal accidents.

    According to WHO, approximately 108 of the 174 countries studied, i.e. 62 % (representing less than 50 % of the world population) impose speed limits of less than 50 km/hr in urban areas. The remaining 48 % allowing higher speeds are, in their vast majority, in WHO's 'low income' and 'middle-income' categories.

    Furthermore, 92 countries (i.e. 53 %) allow local communities to reduce the 50 km/hr limit (particularly close to schools, in residential areas, etc). In total, only 50 countries, i.e. 29 % of the sample, apply the double restraint: speed limit of 50 km/h in urban areas, and the possibility for communities to further reduce this threshold.

    Limiting speed in the city:

    % of countries (of a total 174)

    Below 50 km/h

    62 %

    51 to 70 km/h

    29 %

    71 to 90 km/h

    6 %

    Over 90 km/h


    Source; WHO

    Fighting against driving under the influence

    Every study shows that alcohol consumption (as well as drug use) dramatically increases the risk of accidents. In the United States, according to the NCADD (National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence), alcohol is involved in 32 % of fatal road accidents: it causes more than 13,000 deaths each year.  In France, the Road Prevention Association reports that driving under the influence is responsible for more than 30 % of fatal accidents (i.e. 1,200 deaths in 2010), and for close to 40 % of deaths among young people aged 15 to 24.

    Here again, legislation and regulatory systems applied to the 'alcohol' risk, vary widely from one country to another. In fact, according to the WHO report, 171 countries (i.e. 96 % of the countries studied) have national or local legislation in place on driving under the influence. But only 88 of these (i.e. 49 %) have set a blood alcohol level below or equal to 0.5 g/liter of blood, the level recommended by world health authorities. And only 19 of 139 countries with a blood alcohol level enshrined in legislation, have set lower levels for young and new drivers.

    Even in relatively homogenous geographical zones there may be major differences. In Europe for example, authorized blood alcohol thresholds range from 0 to 0.8 g/liter of blood.


    Blood alcohol threshold authorized for drivers (g/liter of blood)

    Albania, Hungary, Slovak Republic, Czech Republic, Romania, Ukraine


    Norway, Poland, Sweden




    Germany, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Spain, Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Luxemburg, The Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland


    Ireland, Malta, United Kingdom


    Source: Service-public.fr

    Wearing a seatbelt

    In case of accident, wearing a seatbelt reduces the risk of death by 40 to 50 % for the driver and the front passenger of the vehicle, and by 55 to 75 % for the back seat passengers, according to a report by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

    Wearing a seatbelt is compulsory under the law in 88 % of the countries in the world, according to the WHO report on road safety. There are, however, noteworthy differences:  only 57 % of the countries have made it compulsory to wear seat-belts in the front and back of the vehicle.

    And the situation depends largely on standards of living: double protection (compulsory seatbelt, front and back) is in force in 76 % of high-income countries, in 54 % of middle-income countries and in 38 % of low-income countries. Similarly, over 90 % of high-income countries, against only 20 % of low-income countries, have legislation in place on child safety devices.

    This confirms the strong disparity between high- and low-income countries. The latter in fact, combine most road risks and hazards: legislation gaps, dense traffic flows and sharing roads among various modes of transport (motorcars, pedestrians, cyclists, public transport, etc.), lower vehicle and infrastructure quality, poorer efficacy of emergency and health care systems, and much higher impact of accidents on living standards of victims or their families.