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Looking back on 10 years of global road safety

According to the World Health Organization there were 1.35 million road traffic deaths globally in 2016 and between 20 and 50 million more people suffered non-fatal injuries and/or disabilities.

Most of these collisions occurred in low- and middle-income countries and involved pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists. In addition, road traffic collisions are the leading killer of those between 15 and 29 years of age.

Despite some progress being made globally, and in some regions and countries, road traffic fatality rates remain unacceptably high.

The issue of road safety came to the fore when the 1999 World Disaster Report showed collisions as the leading cause of death for humanitarian workers. Despite this, there has been significant road safety progress over the last decade.

2009 was an important year. It was the year that the first Global Status Report on Road Safety was published, revealing the extent of the problem. The first ministerial meeting on road safety was hosted by the Russian government which called for a Decade of Action for Road Safety (2011–2020); and Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a US$125 million investment to implement good practices in 10 low- and middle-income countries.

Vietnam helmet programme launched after the Global Status Report release – “Road Safety is No Accident” Copyright of M. Peden, used with permission.

A Global Plan for the Decade of Action was develop and launched in 2011 encouraging countries to implement good practices in five pillars: road safety management, safer roads and mobility, safer vehicles, safer road users, and post-crash response.

In 2015 the issue of road safety was raised to the highest level through the inclusion of two Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets (3.6 and 11.2) on road safety. Target 3.6, with an endpoint of 2020, proposes a 50% reduction of road traffic deaths and injuries from the baseline of around 1.25 million.

The Brazilian government hosted the second ministerial meeting on road safety, the outcome of which called for the development of global voluntary targets for road safety risk factors and service delivery.

UN Road Safety Trust Fund was also set up and the first US$1 million was provided to implement five pilot projects in 2018. These projects included:

  • advancing street design in Ethiopia,
  • improving data collection in Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal,
  • strengthening legal frameworks in Arab countries,
  • reducing speeds in the Philippines, and
  • building capacity for improved urban planning and sustainable transportation to keep children safer in Paraguay, the Philippines, and South Africa.

The 4th Global Status Report, published in 2018, revealed little change in the 10 years since 2009, however. Reasons cited include rapid population growth, urbanisation, and motorisation in many countries coupled with incomplete data, inadequate enforcement, inferior safety standards for vehicles and roads, and poor road-user behaviour, such as driving under the influence, speeding, and not wearing helmets or seat belts.

However, some countries have made significant progress. Thailand, for instance, has addressed the discrepancies between its reported road safety data and the estimates published by the World Health Organization through a process of triangulation of three data sources.

Sweden is an example many nations aspire to copy. It has seen steady reductions in both fatal and non-fatal road traffic crashes since the country launched its “safe systems” approach in 1994.  The Safe System approach focuses on how the components of the road transport system can work together to prevent fatalities and injuries.

There is still an urgent need to do more as the numbers have plateaued but have not yet begun to show a downward trend.

To save more lives a stronger emphasis on building capacity at the national level is essential, as experience from donor-funded initiatives reveals that money alone does not help if there are no local adequately trained road safety practitioners. Dedicated road safety research programmes such the Global Road Safety Leadership Course, run by the Global Road Safety Partnership and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, aim to build leadership capacity so that people can understand, design, and implement road safety programmes while advocating for policy change.

Bike memorial – picture taken in 2011, USA. Copyright of M. Peden, used with permission.

There is increasing interest in the role of co-design and community-based participatory research in road safety, which involves communities rather than just governments and research institutions working in silos. One example is the work done by the NGO Amend through the School Area Road Safety Assessment and Improvement programme in Tanzania. This involves the assessment of schools zones, identification of specific measures that would improve road safety, and the implementation of those measures with the engagement and participation of the community and local authorities.

The corporate sector has become increasingly interested in road safety initiatives: FedEx is one such company that expects only the highest road safety from its entire staff while also supporting road safety initiatives around the world.

Solid evidence of what works in low-income countries (including sustainable transportation and improved urban planning options), using robust research methodologies, is urgently required so that these can be scaled up and replicated.

Countries and practitioners should be empowered to monitor their road safety deaths and injuries and rigorously evaluate their programmes. Fondation Botnar, for example, has built into its grant mechanisms an expectation of robust monitoring and evaluation using digital health mechanisms where appropriate.

Finally, solid trauma services – from extrication of occupants at the crash site to justice for victims – should be better supported and implemented.

For a reduction in road traffic deaths and injuries to happen in the next decade, countries need to implement a systems approach to road safety, build capacity, and engage end users. They should also scale up their enforcement activities, design smarter roads, sell safer vehicles, and deliver powerful social marketing campaigns to raise awareness among all road users.

Featured image credit: “Bangkok, Thailand” Copyright of M. Peden. Used with permission.

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