Putting Road Safety on the Development Agenda

  • by Stephen Leahy (leipzig, germany)
  • Inter Press Service

Each day, 3,500 people are killed and 13,700 injured in road accidents around the world. That death and injury toll is expected to increase by nearly 50 percent over the next decade without serious efforts to improve road safety, says Etienne Krug, director of the Department of Violence and Injury Prevention and Disability at the World Health Organization (WHO).

Krug was here in Leipzig to the launch of the United Nations the Decade of Action for Road Safety at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's annual International Transport Forum. The goal for the U.N. Decade is to stabilise the spiralling increase in death and injuries on the world's roads.

'We have the potential to save five million of lives over the next decade through changes in road safety,' Krug told IPS.

'A cultural shift is needed to create the awareness of the need for road safety,' he said.

Around 90 percent of all road fatalities occur in emerging and developing countries, making it the sixth leading cause of death in those countries. The lack of road safety laws and enforcement combined with increasing vehicle usage and population growth are the major reasons for this, said Krug.

Only 15 percent of countries in the world have good legislation on drinking and driving or use of helmets when driving scooters and motorcycles. 'We want to push that to 50 percent by the 2020,' he said.

Legislation and enforcement can make a huge difference. Vietnam enacted a helmet law two years ago and the use of helmets went from only 20 percent to over 90 percent, he said. Brazil recently enacted strict drinking and driving laws, while Mexico has made wearing seatbelts mandatory.

'Much more of this is needed,' he said.

Aside from impacts on people and families, road accidents place a large burden on health care systems. The overall economic impacts are estimated at 500 billion dollars a year, according to the WHO. Investments in road safety offer 20 to one payback to society, said Krug.

However, governments are not often aware of the costs of road safety mainly because they do not have good data on how many accidents occur in their countries, said Steve Perkins, head of the Paris-based Joint Transport Research Centre of the International Transport Forum at the OECD.

'A study of workers removing landmines in Cambodia found that more were being injured in road accidents than by removing mines,' said Perkins at a press conference.

'Governments need good data in order to take action,' said Perkins, whose research centre aims to provide comparative data and policy advice.

A major effort to reduce road accidents in Sweden has resulted in just 2.9 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants - one of the lowest in the world. In Afghanistan and Angola, the rate is closer to 40 deaths per 100,000. Most African nations and those in the Middle East have similarly high rates.

There was much public resistance in Sweden to tougher laws to enhance road safety such as serious penalties for drinking and driving, failing to stop at pedestrian crossings, and speeding. That resistance changed when people understood the benefits and saw a reduction in road accidents, said Krug.

In France, there are public protests currently about the radar- activated speed cameras being used to strictly enforce speed limits.

'It takes political will to stick with improvements in road safety and public education until the benefits become clear,' Krug said.

In developing countries, additional resources will be needed if measures are to be taken by governments, police, health practitioners and all road users to improve safety. The FIA Foundation, set up in 2001 by motorsport's governing body to promote road safety, is contributing 300 million dollars to help 'refocus' national road- safety policies and budgets in the developing world.

Unlike deadly diseases, road traffic injuries were 'conspicuous by their absence from the international development agenda', said Kevin Watkins, a researcher at Oxford University and the author of an FIA study about road safety and the Millennium Development Goals.

'Setting targets for cutting mortality rates among children aged up to five and then turning a blind eye to road deaths, one of the biggest killers of five to 14-year-olds, is not just irrational, it is ethically indefensible,' Watkins said in a statement.

Large roadway infrastructure projects in the developing world often do not include provisions for road safety, including those funded by the World Bank. However, now that the U.N. Decade is underway, awareness is increasing and safety will be one of the criteria for future projects, said Krug.

Since pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists make up almost half of those killed on the roads, one the most obvious needs is to create safe roadways for these users. Creating a culture of safety within various sectors of government such as transportation, policing, and planning is the part of the goal of the U.N. Decade.

National governments have been asked to prepare and implement safety plans that will be evaluated and their progress measured through independent safety assessments by the FIA and others. Local and national government agencies such as transport, health, policing will have to work together to truly make a difference.

'We have to understand that road safety is everyone's responsibility,' said Krug.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service