Making mobility safe for every child: campaigning for rights, social justice and action

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FIA Foundation Executive Director Saul Billingsley speaking to the Safe Kids Worldwide Global Network at John Hopkins University, Baltimore.
FIA Foundation Executive Director Saul Billingsley speaking to the Safe Kids Worldwide Global Network at John Hopkins University, Baltimore.

The FIA Foundation’s Executive Director Saul Billingsley spoke to Safe Kids Worldwide’s Global Network Meeting at John Hopkins University, Baltimore, held on 25 July 2017, on the theme of Child & Adolescent Health & Mobility: Campaigning for Rights, Social Justice and Action. Below is a blog based on an edited version of his remarks.

“At the FIA Foundation our philanthropic partnerships and our advocacy are guided by some advice from Martin Luther King: ‘Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.’ In other words, we aren’t going to fix the issues we all care about by just focusing on immediate sticking plaster solutions. We also have to confront and address the underlying social and structural problems and inequalities which cause or contribute to them.

Let me illustrate the point with an example outside the scope of our work, but which, as a Londoner, I feel strongly about: the Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people are known to have lost their lives. The appalling injustice and blinding negligence which enabled this loss of life has demanded a reassessment of who we are as a city and a country and the level of safety we’re willing to accept for our fellow citizens. While the disaster is the subject of a public enquiry, it is clear that flammable external cladding acted as an accelerant enabling the fire to spread. Essentially the authorities allowed a high-rise building to be wrapped in firelighter material while failing to provide sprinklers or alarms.

An investigation by the New York Times found that the cladding used is banned for high-rise buildings in the rest of Europe and the US, but the company that manufactured it allowed sale in the UK, saying “regulations and codes vary by country and need to be determined by the local building code experts”. Despite knowing the risks, it is alleged that they seem to have allowed sale and use of unsuitable and dangerous product because the local enforcement regime allowed or didn’t prevent it. A failure of regulation, a failure of corporate ethics.

What has this to do with the work of the FIA Foundation? Everything. Because we also work on global policy agendas where the quality of state regulation and the attitude towards the poorest and most vulnerable is a matter of life or death.

“We need to respect all governments – who is to say which government is right in the commonization of safety standards…” So said General Motors CEO Mary Barra at a 2016 press conference justifying, on the basis of a lack of local regulation, the sale of cars in Latin America with poor structural integrity and no airbags. It is a strikingly similar corporate argument to the one which supplied flammable panels to Grenfell – an argument which seems to say, we know this is wrong/immoral but the local law allows it so we’re going to do it anyway. In the case of vehicle safety it is an argument being confronted by campaigners from Latin NCAP, supported by the FIA Foundation and including Safe Kids’ affiliate Fundacion Gonzalo Rodriguez. They have, for example, exposed the injustice of the Nissan Tsuru, a ‘ zero star’ car manufactured in Mexico for Mexicans, because they weren’t deemed valuable (or rich) enough to be sold the highly engineered, well-equipped Nissan also built in Mexico for US consumers.

Or take the example of dieselgate. Consumers and policymakers were sold the lie of ‘clean diesel’. Volkswagen’s cheat programming invalidated the emissions performance of more than eleven million cars worldwide. Many other manufacturers are also implicated in similar scams. And despite President Trump telling auto CEOs that environmental regulation is ‘out of control’, we know that lab tests significantly underestimate real world emissions. Much more needs to be done. So with ICCT, the NGO which broke dieselgate, we are working on a new initiative to gather data in London and Paris to measure ‘the real urban emissions’ of diesel cars and to encourage a more robust and holistic response to tackling dirty air from regulators and governments.

This is urgent. Because the real victims of poor air pollution are the poor. Grenfell Tower is sited in one of the most deprived wards in the richest borough in England. The occupants of the tower had repeatedly called for action to address fire safety concerns, but nothing was done. The council was more interested in the voice and votes of the area’s richer inhabitants. As is so often the case, the poorer or more marginal you are the less your voice carries. In London analysis shows that 800 schools are in areas breaching EU limits for nitrogen dioxide. Schools in low-income areas are worst affected. The previous mayor sat on the findings, the new mayor describes the situation as ‘fundamentally an issue of social injustice – if you are a poor Londoner you are more likely to suffer from illegal air.” So it goes…analysis in the US by the Center for Public Integrity has found that 8000 schools are sited within 500 feet of highways or roads with significant traffic. Lower income and minority students are estimated to be much more likely to go to school in high emissions areas. In Newark, New Jersey, a quarter of all children in the city are estimated to suffer from asthma. One school sited right on the highway is passed by 11,000 vehicles a day.

Globally, UNICEF estimates that 300 million children breathe highly toxic air every day, many of them in the megacities of China, India and South East Asia. Add to this the impact of road traffic injuries and the scale of the damage done to children is clear. And the damage intersects in places like the N1 highway in Accra, Ghana. Despite data showing that children in Sub-Saharan Africa are twice as likely to be killed in a road traffic collision as the next worst region of the world, despite data showing that the overwhelming majority of African children walk to school, roads like the N1, or the ‘George W. Bush Highway’ are still being built. In a supremely ill-judged press release in 2012 the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) , the donor for the road, described ‘racing to the finishing line…the highway improvement – including construction of a six lane, 14 kilometer motorway in the heart of Accra – has been a massive engineering feat’. U2 rock star Bono was pictured with smiling children at an Accra school funded by the MCC as part of the same development package. The hand that giveth also taketh away: 43 people, including schoolchildren, were killed on this fourteen kilometre stretch of road in the first 9 months after it opened. A local journalist described as ‘irrational’ the construction ‘of such an international highway through densely populated communities without making adequate provision for pedestrian walkways…’

Whether it is highway infrastructure knowingly built without consideration or protection for pedestrians, cars deliberately designed without crumple zones or airbags, or governments turning a blind eye to dangerous levels of diesel pollution, the approach to citizens’ rights which leads to smouldering tower blocks also results in thousands of lives being lost every day on the world’s roads, and millions of children walking or being driven to school breathing carcinogenic air.

Experts working in these fields tend to treat road safety or air pollution as complex and narrow technical challenges, which of course they are. But these are also elements in huge political issues of social justice, health and economic inequality, and civil rights. For too long we have accepted a ‘blame the victim’ culture which reduces road traffic injury to the level of an individual mistake. This lets leaders off the hook, allowing them to point fingers at a thousand accomplices without accepting responsibility for their key role in accepting mangled bodies and broken lives. It allows the media to cover road collisions as ‘accidents’, rather than the consequence of institutional failure. Countries or cities which go beyond the technocratic jargon to root the case for action in the language of human rights, can build a stronger, more coherent and more sustainable and defendable response.

Nelson Mandela said: ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children’. Watching schoolkids trying to cross the N1 against speeding traffic, seeing media photos of a young child in Tanzania sitting in the middle of the road, blocking traffic, to protest a car knocking down his schoolmate, reading the testimony of a mother in Newark, New Jersey, describing the ‘health injustice’ of thousands of vehicles driving past her asthmatic son’s school every single day, it is clear that one of the frontlines of child rights today is policy on mobility and urban planning.

‘For the health of future generations, for the right to an education, for the fight against poverty: This is an initiative for all of us, for every child, on every journey.’ So said Zoleka Mandela, Nelson’s granddaughter and a fierce child rights advocate in her own right, launching the Global Initiative for Child Health & Mobility last year. This coalition, coordinated by the FIA Foundation, brings together agencies and organisations including UNICEF, UN Environment, Save the Children – and, now, Safe Kids Worldwide – to champion the rights of children to health to education and to safe mobility. Connecting closely to the Sustainable Development Goals, and with a mandate from the world’s governments and leading cities in the Habitat III declaration ‘for a safe and healthy journey to school for every child as a priority’, this initiative is working to place children at the heart of decision-making in transport planning, road safety, air quality and urban development policies.

For example, our Speed Vaccine campaign is making the case for urban speeds safe for children as a public health ‘vaccine’ proven to save lives and reduce injuries. Supported by public health leaders including Jimmy Carter, Mike Bloomberg and Margaret Chan, as well as by the Dean of Public Health here at John Hopkins, Mike Klag, and his esteemed predecessor Al Sommer, as well as public health deans from across the US, the campaign is challenging policymakers to respond to a simple message: speed kills children, what are you going to do about it? The message is buttressed by evidence, from demonstration projects in several African cities, from Safe System experts at the OECD, from large-scale experience in cities from New York to Sao Paolo to Seoul. A new ‘star rating’ app for schools being developed by the International Road Assessment Programme with support from FedEx, which is being road-tested by our partners including Amend, AIP Foundation, Fundacion Gonzalo Rodriguez and UNICEF, has the potential to democratise road design and put advocacy tools in the hands of local schools and communities to demand change.

And change will come. Awareness of the public health impacts of traffic is growing, and with it recognition that action has to happen. For every prime minister who declares, ‘if you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’, there is a room like this one full of world citizens, working together for a common goal, willing to transcend borders and languages to protect and defend children. For every president who says environmentalism is out of control, there are a hundred activist Mayors of cities willing to take tough action to clean the air and combat climate change. And in one of those cities, London, our child health initiative will be convening a major conference in October to advance this agenda of child rights, bringing together a diverse group of leaders and organisations including the world’s leading child development agencies, C40 Cities, urban leaders and activists like you from across the world to define and agree the essential actions that need to happen to achieve our vision of a safe and healthy journey to school for every child.

And it is important to remember who we are working for. Young people like Nneka, a fifteen year old schoolgirl from Jamaica, (main photo above), a talented netball player, who was hit by a speeding car and lost a leg. She is a strong and purposeful young woman, but her life’s trajectory has been violently altered. And her story is repeated around the world 3000 times every day. In Jamaica our child health initiative is helping to bring together UNICEF, the government, the National Road Safety Council and international expertise to develop a response, safer streets and crossings at high-risk schools in the country. Nneka met the Prime Minister at a Speed Vaccine event that we organised, to bring home the real human impact and the need for urgency. Nneka has lent her name and her story to the cause, we have an obligation not to fail her.

Desmond Tutu said: ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’ We have to stand on the side of social justice and against the ‘oppressor’, whether they be cost-cutting industry, foot-dragging politicians, unthinking or outdated planners and engineers…or just indifference to the plight and rights of children. Together we can make the change and make a difference to children’s lives.”