Deadly virus of the roads

What is the common thread linking 32 year-old Margaret Oduku and nine members of a Kenyan church choir to 57 people travelling on a bus in Guatemala, and a 14-year-old schoolboy waiting for a bus in Delhi? They have all been killed recently in traffic accidents. Traffic death and injury is a global pandemic in which more than 1.2 million lives are lost annually; another 50 million people suffer debilitating injury. And most of the victims live in developing countries.

“Traffic accident” is a euphemism for the gross negligence that perpetuates this carnage; far from being unpredictable and unavoidable, most traffic-related injuries could be prevented through simple, cheap safety strategies. Next week the UN general assembly will vote on convening the first ministerial summit on road safety. The stakes could hardly be higher. Traffic injuries in developing countries kill on the scale of malaria or tuberculosis. For children between five and 14, traffic injuries are the biggest source of death.

Developing countries’ casualty lists are dominated by pedestrians, cyclists and passengers in public transport vehicles. The world’s most dangerous roads are in Africa. Britain has a fatality rate of one death per 10,000 vehicles; in Ethiopia and Uganda it tops 190. Traffic deaths are climbing most rapidly in Asia and Latin America, where rising prosperity fuels car sales and investment in roads. The costs go beyond personal suffering. Lost productivity as a result of traffic injury wipes out 1% to 2% of output in developing nations.

Every country has its own variant of the road injury virus. Dangerous drivers, badly maintained vehicles, poor pedestrian safety design and weak enforcement of standards are common themes. Add to this lethal cocktail lax regulation and government indifference, and you have a perfect equation for loss of life.

Cutting road deaths does not take rocket science. Building road safety into transport infrastructure design and enforcing traffic rules are proven life-savers. Since 2000, Rwanda has cut road deaths by a third through a cut-speed safety strategy. Countries such as Thailand and Vietnam have combined public education and law enforcement to increase helmet use. And in Bogota, Colombia, a combination of road safety and transport initiatives has halved road deaths in less than a decade.

Why, then, are governments failing to protect their citizens? Partly because the victims lack a political voice. But often traffic death and injury is viewed as the inevitable collateral damage that comes with economic growth. Aid donors are part of the problem. Take the case of sub-Saharan Africa. Two years ago, the G8 pledged $1.2bn for road development in the region. Road safety financing amounts to less than 1% of the package. Meanwhile, with a $4bn transport infrastructure portfolio, the World Bank and regional development banks employ just two full-time road safety specialists.

The Global Road Safety Campaign wants the UN summit to agree a $300m fund for building road safety capacity in developing countries. It calls on donors to invest 10% of road infrastructure budgets on safety. But governments don’t have to wait for a summit meeting to act — and their citizens cannot afford delay. It is time for a 21st-century transport policy that puts safety at the heart of road management. — The Guardian