Most of us motorists have experienced that terrible sinking feeling, when the surroundings suddenly seem unfamiliar. We could be lost, or, worse, stuck in some foreign country, miles from habitation.

Under those circumstances minor accidents or other mishaps could have major consequences. Just communicating with the emergency services could be problematic, and that's before they even try to establish where you are.

The sooner accident victims receive treatment, the greater their chances of survival. Medics call this the "golden hour" principle. And that's why eCall, the pan-European, in-vehicle emergency call system that the European Commission is spearheading, has the potential to be a major lifesaver.

Regrettably, accidents will happen. On Europe's roads, 40,000 people lose their lives each year and a further 1.6 million are injured, at a cost of €160bn (£110bn). To combat this carnage, the EU set a target in 2001 of halving the number of road deaths by 2010.

A key part of this strategy is the European Commission's "Intelligent Car" initiative, designed to accelerate the development, roll out and use of vehicle safety systems. ECall is the first building block in that initiative.

Under eCall, every vehicle would be fitted with a device designed to trigger automatically when the air bag activates, the vehicle overturns or the temperature suddenly rises. Details of precise location, time and vehicle identification would be sent to the nearest "Public Safety Answering Point" (PSAP). The device could also be triggered manually.

Research indicates that eCall could reduce response times in rural areas by 50 per cent and by up to 40 per cent in urban areas. That could save 2,500 lives a year, reduce severe injuries by 15 per cent and cut road traffic accident bills by a massive €22bn.

The aim is to make eCall available to all, anywhere in the EU, though that will be easier said than done. All the stakeholders have drawn up a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), binding themselves to implement eCall using commonly agreed standards and infrastructure, and to have it as standard in all new vehicles from September 2009.

Sadly that target is almost certain to be missed. It is not the motor industry that is the problem, but rather member states that are dragging their feet. Less than a third have signed the MoU.

For eCall to be truly pan-European, it needs to use the single European emergency number 112, which usually runs alongside national emergency numbers like 999. Countries will have to upgrade their emergency response systems. As well as integrating different emergency services into single PSAPs, capable of handling eCalls, they will also need to make language support available, otherwise a French driver having an accident in Latvia could face serious problems communicating.

Clearly this will cost. The European Commission estimates some €4.5bn a year. But set against potential savings of €26bn, that seems cheap at the price.

Gary Titley is leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party

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