Safer roads at Rio +20: ‘don’t blow it’

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In an article for The Guardian’s global road safety section Kevin Watkins, Overseas Development Institute Executive Director, calls for road safety to be on the Rio +20 summit agenda.

Joseph Stalin reputedly coined the phrase ‘one death is a tragedy; one million deaths is just a statistic.’ Let’s face it, he had a point.

How else can you explain the collective indifference of governments, aid donors and non-government organizations to one of the greatest development challenges of our day – the challenge of stopping the carnage on the world’s roads?

This year, over 1.3 million people will die as a result of road traffic injury. That’s roughly ten lives lost by the time you finish this article. Countless millions will be left with long-term injuries. Over 90 per cent of the victims will live in developing countries.

The sheer scale of the carnage is not widely recognized. For adolescents and young adults in developing countries, road traffic injury is now the single biggest cause of death. In Africa, cars and trucks kill more 5-14 year old children than killer diseases like malaria and AIDS. Yet the road injury epidemic has yet to register on the international development agenda.

Fatality is just the tip of an iceberg. In countries lacking accessible health systems and social welfare safety nets, a road traffic injury is all too often a one-way ticket to poverty. Other costs are beyond estimation. What price do you put on the grief and trauma that comes with the loss of a child, a parent, a sister or a friend?

Over the past few months I have seen some of the human tragedy behind the statistics. I’ve spoken in South African townships with mothers who have been robbed of their children. In Mumbai I met Shabir Sheikh, a twenty-three year old. Six years ago he was a promising secondary school student who dreamt of becoming an engineer. Today, he is still recovering from the limb-shattering injuries he sustained.

If you want to see the global road crisis in action there is no better place than the road linking Kenya’s capital Nairobi to the port of Mombassa. Lovingly upgraded into an eight lane superhighway with support from the World Bank and other donors, speed is up and journey times are down.

Pity they forgot about the children. Every morning, you can see hundreds of them crossing the road to get from their homes in the sprawling slum of Kibera to primary school. “It makes me scared every single day,” Mary Kitunga, a twelve year old told me. She had just crossed the road carrying her four-year old brother. For point of reference try imagine your kids crossing a motorway to get to school.

However dire the situation is today the future looks much worse. We are heading for a perfect road traffic injury storm. Economic growth and the rise of the middle class in developing countries are driving up demand for cars. Meanwhile, population growth and urbanization is putting more people – especially children - in harm’s way.

Reflect for a moment on deadly arithmetic. In a country like Britain, there is one death for every 10,000 cars on the road. In Brazil, the death ratio is 7 times higher, in China it is 15 times higher, and in India there are 27 deaths for every 10,000 cars. The death ratio for much of Africa is off-the-scale. In Nigeria, there are seventy times more deaths on a per vehicle basis than in Europe.

These numbers matter. While car numbers in rich countries are static, sales are booming across Asia and Latin America – and they are rising sharply in Africa. By 2015, India will overtake Germany as the world’s fourth largest market for vehicles.

Put together more cars and more people, and what do you get? An awful lot more dead and injured people. According to the World Health Organization the number of people dying on the world’s roads will rise by half a million over the next six years.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Cutting road traffic injuries is not rocket-science. Design roads that separate cars, trucks and buses from people; enforce laws on helmets, seat belts, speeding and drink-driving; run campaigns that increase public awareness; invest in safe public transport. These are measures that the Global Commission for Road Safety estimates could save 5 million lives and prevent 50 million injuries between now and 2020.

So what needs to change? In a word: attitude. Bilateral donors like the World Bank and other multilateral development banks are spending billions on road infrastructure, but all too often road safety is an afterthought. They should be setting aside 10 per cent of their project budgets for safety. Car companies talk a good line on road safety. But when they spot a market opportunity people come a distant second to profit. That’s why major multinational companies operate one set of vehicle standards for America, and another for Brazil.

Development agencies also have to ask themselves some tough questions, starting with the obvious one. Why isn’t one of the great sources of poverty, human suffering and economic waste on the global campaigning agenda?

Twenty years ago the first Rio summit challenged us all to rethink our understanding of poverty and the environment. In a few months’ time, ‘Rio plus 20’ will provide an opportunity to set a new course in transport policy.

It’s time to put people before cars. This isn’t just about saving lives. It’s about heading-off a social, ecological and economic disaster. Cars accounts for one-fifth of CO2 emissions (and rising). Air pollution from vehicles contributes to almost 1 million deaths annually. And just in case you think the car boom is good for growth, think again. The grid-locks paralyzing major cities like Delhi, Sao Paolo and Shanghai are wiping out 2-3 per cent of their GDP annually.

Later today, the governments and UN agencies planning ‘Rio plus 20’ will meet in New York to put the finishing touches to the summit agenda. They have a chance to put road safety at the heart of a sustainable transport policy.

On behalf of those kids crossing the Mombassa highway, I have just one request: don’t blow it.

The Guardian published this article on its ‘development and road safety’ section which is supported by the Road Safety Fund >