Road traffic and safety provisions

The EU set itself the aim of creating a European road safety area in the decade spanning 2010-2020. Competence in this field is principally national. Therefore the EU is focusing its measures on vehicle condition, the transport of dangerous goods and safety of road networks.

Legal basis

Title VI of the Treaty of Lisbon and in particular Article 91 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).


The aim is to improve road safety and contribute to sustainable mobility. According to the statistics, in 2015 on EU roads there were 26 000 deaths (5 500 fewer than in 2010) and 135 000 people seriously injured. The social cost of accidents resulting in death or serious injury is estimated at least EUR 100 billion. The past two years have seen a relatively modest fall (some 0.6%) which has to be viewed against the average annual decline of 6.7% that it is estimated would be required if road deaths were to be halved by 2020[1].



In June 2003 the Commission published the European Road Safety Action Programme 2003-2010. The aim of this programme, the third of its kind, was to halve the number of road deaths in the Union by the end of 2010. Even if it did not manage to meet this target by the deadline set, the programme did succeed in reducing the number of road accident victims, as the Commission pointed out in its Communication published on 20 July 2010, ‘Towards a European road safety area: policy orientations on road safety 2011-2020’. The new White Paper published on 28 March 2011 moved the target date for halving the number of fatal road accidents forward to 2020 and set 2050 as the target date for moving close to having ‘zero fatalities’. The Commission also set out in its policy orientations seven objectives for which it envisages national and EU measures being adopted.

Those objectives include: improving education and training for road users and stepping up the enforcement of road rules; improving the safety of road infrastructures and vehicle safety; promoting the use of intelligent transport systems (ITS), through the ‘eCall’ on-board emergency call system for instance; improving emergency and post-injury services; and protecting vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. Application of the policy orientations is based on open cooperation between the Member States and the Commission. In setting these objectives, the policy orientations help guide national and local strategies, in accordance with the principles of shared responsibility and subsidiarity. Member States are thus encouraged to launch national programmes linked to specific targets. The European Road Safety Charter, established by the Commission in 2004, also addresses civil society so that it too may play its part, by sharing experience, in cutting the number of deaths on the EU’s roads.

b.Technical condition of vehicles

The technical harmonisation of vehicles covers in particular:

  • periodic roadworthiness tests for motor vehicles and their trailers (Directive 2000/30/EC of 6 June 2000 on the roadside inspection of commercial vehicles; Directive 1999/37/EC of 29 April 1999 on the registration documents for vehicles). a new package of legislative measures, proposed on 13 July 2012, aims to improve protection for vulnerable users and in particular young people, to establish a single European vehicle testing area (tests, equipment, inspector qualifications, assessment of defects and cooperation between Member States), and to reduce the administrative burden for road haulage firms; at present, private vehicles, light commercial vehicles, buses, coaches, heavy goods vehicles and their trailers are all subject to periodic roadworthiness tests; in its proposal for a regulation to replace Directive 2009/40/EC, the Commission aimed to extend roadworthiness tests to motorcycles; Parliament, however, ultimately ruled that they should be excluded, leaving the Member States to decide on a case-by-case basis; as regards the frequency of these tests, the Commission proposes a yearly test for all vehicles over six years old, while Parliament envisages these vehicles being tested every two years and only as from the fourth year after their registration; the Commission is proposing a risk-based system for roadworthiness tests on commercial vehicles, in another regulation, in order to make them more efficient, repealing Directive 2000/30/EC of 6 June 2000; the Commission is amending Directive 1999/37/EC, in the final part of the 2012 package on roadworthiness tests, in order to improve management of registration documents and to include in them a reference to the overall results of the test procedure (see also ‘Role of the European Parliament’);
  • compulsory use of seat belts in vehicles under 3.5 tonnes in weight; Directive 2003/20/EC of 8 April 2003 stipulates the compulsory use of child restraints and of seat belts for all persons seated in those buses and coaches in which they are fitted (with exemptions for local transport services in urban areas);
  • compulsory installation of speed limitation devices in motor vehicles exceeding 3.5 tonnes pursuant to Directive 92/6/EEC of 10 February 1992; Directive 2002/85/EC of 5 November 2002 extended the obligation to use speed limitation devices to all good vehicles and passenger vehicles with more than eight seats (not including the driver), of between 3.5 tonnes and 12 tonnes;
  • active safety systems: Regulation (EC) No 78/2009 of 14 January 2009 on the type-approval of motor vehicles with regard to the protection of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users laid down certain requirements for the construction and functioning of frontal protection systems in the event of a head-on collision with another vehicle, and enhanced the technology enabling collisions with cyclists and pedestrians to be avoided. it also laid down that type-approved brake assist systems (BAS) should be fitted;
  • lastly, the safety of road users was improved by reducing the ‘blind spot’: Directive 2003/97/EC of 10 November 2003 stipulated that new heavy goods vehicles being driven in the EU should have additional ‘blind spot’ rear-view mirrors (wide angle, close proximity and forward view); Directive 2007/38/EC of 11 July 2007 laid down that existing lorry fleets were also to be fitted with these devices. Regulation (EC) No 661/2009 of 13 July 2009 repealed Directive 2003/97/EC, as from 1 November 2014, in order to make the same types of rear-view mirrors obligatory for vehicles registered outside the EU; in 2011, the Commission commissioned a study on accidents caused by blind spots and in June 2012 it presented its report on the implementation of Directive 2007/38, which stressed in particular that accidents involving heavy goods vehicles are responsible for more than 1 200 deaths per year and hence work to prevent accidents of this kind needs to continue.

c.Transport of dangerous goods

Directive 94/55/EC of 21 November 1994 extended to domestic transport the rules laid down in the European Agreement concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road (ADR). Directive 2008/68/EC of 24 September 2008 set up a common regime covering all aspects of the inland transport of dangerous goods in the EU (by rail and inland waterway as well as by road). Commission Directive 2012/45/EU of 3 December 2012 brought this up to date, in line with the latest version of the ADR Agreement (which is updated every two years). Council Directive 95/50/EC of 6 October 1995 governs uniform procedures for checks in the EU on the transport of dangerous goods by road. Council Directive 96/35/EC of 3 June 1996 covered the professional qualifications of safety advisers for the transport of dangerous goods by road, making it compulsory for businesses to appoint them. Directives 94/55/EC and 96/35/EC were repealed by Directive 2008/68/EC.

d.Intelligent transport systems (ITS) and the eSafety initiative

On 16 December 2008, the Commission launched an Action Plan for the deployment of intelligent transport systems (ITS) in road transport. This Action Plan was based on a series of initiatives (for example the eSafety initiative launched in 2006) and provided for priority actions. Working on the same lines, Directive 2010/40/EU of 7 July 2010 on ITS in road transport aims to ensure the coordinated and consistent deployment of interoperable ITS services in the European Union. Intelligent transport systems are advanced applications whose purpose is to provide innovative services and enable different users to be better informed and make safer, better coordinated and more intelligent use of transport networks. These systems include, for example, automatic speed adjusters, devices to prevent involuntary lane departures, collision warning devices and automatic emergency call systems in the event of an accident (eCall, see the section below entitled ‘Role of the European Parliament’).

The eSafety Forum, created by the Commission in 2003 and known since 2011 as iMobility, is a joint platform for all road safety stakeholders. The aim of the forum is to encourage and monitor respect for the recommendations on eSafety and to support the deployment and use of car safety systems.

e.Safety of road infrastructure

Directive 2004/54/EC of 29 April 2004 laid down minimum safety requirements for tunnels in the trans-European road network. The directive stipulates that all tunnels longer than 500 m, whether in service, under construction or at the design stage, are to be subject to harmonised safety rules. These rules cover organisational, structural, technical and operational aspects of operating those tunnels, having regard to the kinds of accidents that occur most frequently, such as fire. Directive 2008/96/EC of 19 November 2008, on road infrastructure safety management, aims to ensure that road safety is taken into account, through impact assessments, at all stages of the construction, operation or substantial alteration of roads. To this end, the Directive has established systematic safety audits for road infrastructure projects. It has also laid down provisions for safety inspections on roads in operation and identification of road sections where a high number of accidents occur (black spots).

f.Drink-driving accident statistics and prevention

The CARE database on road accidents resulting in death or injury was created as a result of Council Decision 93/704/EC in order to compile data from national statistical files and circulate them via the European Road Safety Observatory (ERSO). As part of the EU’s policy on improving driving behaviour, the Commission stipulates that Member States must adopt random breath testing and imposes levels for maximum permitted blood alcohol content. Persons suspected of drink-driving are subjected to random tests using instruments known as breathalysers (Commission Recommendations 2001/115 of 17 January 2001 and 2004/345 of 17 April 2004). With a view to improving road safety the Commission has established a harmonised code governing alcohol ignition interlock devices which have been adopted by a number of Member States (see Directive (EU) 2015/653 of 24 April 2015 amending Directive 2006/126/EC on driving licences).

g.Cross-border enforcement in respect of road traffic offences

Directive (EU) 2015/413 of 11 March 2015 facilitating cross-border exchange of information on road-safety-related traffic offences was adopted on the basis of Article 91(1)(c) TFEU (Title VI ‘Transport’). This Directive replaces Directive 2011/82/EU (annulled by the Court of Justice of the European Union in its judgment of 6 May 2014). The aim remains the same: ending the right to anonymity for non-resident drivers and enabling prosecution for offences committed in a Member State other than that in which the vehicle is registered. However, the new rules would henceforth apply in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark. Member States may access each other’s national vehicle registration data using an information exchange procedure between national points of contact. In practice it would be up to the Member State where the offence was committed whether or not it wished to proceed with a prosecution. The suspected offender could thus be informed by a standard letter of the details of the offence, the amount of the fine he or she has to pay, payment options and appeal procedures. While personal data is protected, the Directive does ensure that non-resident drivers are consistently punished for eight serious road safety offences (speeding; not using a seat belt or a helmet; failing to stop at a red light; driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs; use of a forbidden lane; and illegally using a mobile phone or other communication device while driving).

Role of the European Parliament

The European Parliament has issued numerous resolutions emphasising the importance of road safety. When in 2005 it endorsed the Commission’s third action programme (2003-2010), it was already calling for a long-term plan to be developed going beyond 2010, which would set out measures intended to prevent all road deaths (‘Vision Zero’) (P6_TA(2005)0366). In its resolution on European road safety 2011-2020 (P7_TA(2011)0408), Parliament once again called on the Commission to make the prevention of all road deaths a long-term objective, but it linked this to the systematic use of technology in road vehicles and the development of good-quality ITS networks. Parliament is nonetheless insistent that a comprehensive action programme, including a detailed catalogue of measures, should be adopted, with timetables and follow-up tools. It has also added other quantitative targets to be met by 2020: a 60% drop in the number of children under 14 killed on the roads, a 50% drop in deaths of pedestrians and cyclists, and a 40% drop in the number of people seriously injured, these figures to be established according to a uniform EU definition to be devised as soon as possible. Furthermore, in its resolution on a sustainable future for transport (P7_TA(2010)0260), Parliament asked the Commission to present a brief study on the best practices in Member States concerning the impact of speed limiters and expressed its concerns over the safety of workers in the transport sector. Parliament also advocated having a uniform definition of road safety terms in order to improve research on accidents by ensuring that findings were comparable. The Commission’s working document on road injuries, published on 19 March 2013, is a partial response to Parliament’s call for the scope of the strategy on road accidents to be broadened. It sets out the objective of reducing at EU level the total number of people seriously injured (in 2015-2020) and it pointed out that a system to define serious injuries has been operational throughout the EU since 2012. However, Parliament wants to see by 2020 the establishment of a programme with quantified indicators, measures and milestones.

On 11 March 2014, Parliament adopted all of the minimum common standards for periodic roadworthiness tests for vehicles, vehicle registration documents and roadside inspections of commercial vehicles. The deal with the Member States, which will be formally approved by the Council, will help to improve road safety and cross-border recognition of valid roadworthiness certificates.

Following Decision No 585/2014/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council on the deployment of the interoperable EU-wide eCall service (see point D above), Member States must have established the infrastructure of the Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP) required to handle eCalls by 1 October 2017 at the latest.

[1] See Commission press release of 31 March 2016: Road Safety: new statistics call for fresh efforts to save lives on EU roads

Christina Ratcliff