Sweden 2020: last chance for governments to ‘walk the talk’ on road safety

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Ten years ago, in St Petersburg, the Commission for Global Road Safety first called for a Decade of Action. (Images above and below.)
Ten years ago, in St Petersburg, the Commission for Global Road Safety first called for a Decade of Action. (Images above and below.)
Data estimates suggest the Decade of Action has seen global road deaths stabilising, or slightly increasing. Graph courtesy ITF/OECD.
Data estimates suggest the Decade of Action has seen global road deaths stabilising, or slightly increasing. Graph courtesy ITF/OECD.
The first cars independently crashed tested in South Africa by Global NCAP, just one example of the strong initiatives developed during the Decade of Action.
The first cars independently crashed tested in South Africa by Global NCAP, just one example of the strong initiatives developed during the Decade of Action.
Launch of the UN Road Safety Trust Fund in April 2018. The Decade of Action has seen significant institutional progress, which create a platform for further advances beyond 2020.
Launch of the UN Road Safety Trust Fund in April 2018. The Decade of Action has seen significant institutional progress, which create a platform for further advances beyond 2020.
There is increasing grassroots demand for action on safer streets, particularly for children and pedestrians, and the campaign for governments to ‘walk the talk’ will grow in advance of the Stockholm High Level Conference.
There is increasing grassroots demand for action on safer streets, particularly for children and pedestrians, and the campaign for governments to ‘walk the talk’ will grow in advance of the Stockholm High Level Conference.

Ten years ago this week saw an important international moment which has influenced many lives in the subsequent decade.

Yes, there was the Lehman collapse, when the credit crunch got crunchier and the world teetered on the brink of a Great Depression. But also another, smaller, moment, in a palace in St Petersburg where the Commission for Global Road Safety, a group of leading road safety advocates chaired by Lord Robertson of Port Ellen and convened by the FIA Foundation, then led by my predecessor David Ward, met and agreed to launch a campaign to call for an ambitious ten year effort to reduce road traffic fatalities – a United Nations Decade of Action for Road Safety.

All of us who were involved can be rightly proud that the proposal was subsequently adopted by the Moscow High Level Conference on Road Safety and then the UN General Assembly. This was achieved by a genuinely global coalition, led and coordinated by the World Health Organization, World Bank and the Russian Government. And there was a heady optimism and momentum as the whole road safety community came together to first campaign, then to devise a Global Plan, and finally to launch the Decade in May 2011 with events from Sydney to Santiago. But looking at the progress of the Decade it does, to some extent, feel like a missed opportunity, and in devising the next step forward, post-2020, we will all need to think hard about what has worked, and what hasn’t. So here are some first thoughts…

The Decade of Action was intended to focus governmental and donor attention on the road traffic injury epidemic, and our inspiration was the way that the UN Decade to Roll Back Malaria seemed to be successfully marshalling support and resources. But whereas the Malaria Decade was the icing on the cake of the combined force of the Millennium Development Goals, the Global Fund for AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis, the Gates Foundation and successive G8 communiques, the road safety Decade was built on somewhat flimsier foundations. In retrospect, we perhaps reached for the stars without first building a sufficiently powerful rocket. But politics is the art of the possible and the Decade of Action that we got was what was attainable at the time.

As approved by the UN General Assembly, the Decade of Action had an entirely voluntary target to ‘stabilise and then reduce’ road traffic fatalities (it was never proposed to attempt a fifty per cent real terms fatality reduction by 2020, although that was the perceived objective that stuck with many people including, a few years later, negotiators of the Sustainable Development Goals). Beyond the fact-on-paper of the UN Resolution, which had some moral force but contained no compulsion and offered no resourcing, the Decade of Action was essentially a chimera. That it was given reality and sustained through the effort and commitment of thousands of organisations and people, and became a driver of the road safety policies of governments, institutions and companies, is itself a wonderful achievement worth celebrating.

What else has it so far achieved? At an estimated 1.34 million deaths a year, the dreadful loss and tragedy hasn’t reduced, but it hasn’t yet significantly increased either and certainly not to the sort of levels (1.9 million a year) that were still being forecast ten years ago. A grim and bloody status quo – the ‘stabilise’ of the UN resolution – is just about holding. The extent to which the Decade of Action as an organising force has contributed to this is difficult to calculate, perhaps the forthcoming WHO Global Status Report due at the end of 2018 will shed more light.

More easily attributable are the institutional changes - the improved coordination of the road safety community, through the UN Road Safety Collaboration; the appointment of a first ever UN Special Envoy for Road Safety; the launch of a UN Road Safety Trust Fund; an ever strengthening NGO Alliance; the adoption by the World Bank of road safety safeguards for its infrastructure lending; and of course the vital inclusion of road safety in the SDGs, which has begun to bring new and wider institutional attention to the issue, and has led to the adoption by governments of specific voluntary targets. These provide a strong platform for future progress. And there is good evidence of the growing policy influence and practical results at national and regional level of two major Decade-related initiatives – the global new car assessment programme and its regional partners and campaigns, and the international road assessment programme – both supported with core funding from the FIA Foundation; and the spreading gospel of the Safe System (not least through city-based initiatives funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and expert reports from the International Transport Forum).

Yet the two elements the Decade of Action was launched to attract – high level and deep national political buy-in; and catalytic financial resourcing equal to the epidemic – have proved most elusive. We need a renewed mission to secure them.

So it is welcome that plans are now moving ahead for the 3rd Global High Level Conference on Road Safety in February 2020, intended both as an opportunity to review the outcomes of the Decade and as the launch pad for the next push forward. The host and location should inspire: Sweden, the birthplace of Vision Zero and a rights-based approach to road safety. The best performing country on road safety in the world, a constant innovator in the possibilities of saving lives, whether it is the seat belt, the re-design of inter-urban roads, shared urban space, zero tolerance of child deaths, the crashworthiness of Volvo design, the potential of automation, or testing the limits of public tolerance of speed reduction.

Some have already raised concerns that Sweden is so atypical of the traffic injury issues that beset much of the developing world that the conference agenda could be ‘out of touch’: too high income, too culturally sensible, too focused on the technological future, too wrapped up in a Safe System approach unattainable by most countries. But the opposite is surely true.

Sweden is an exemplar of the power and potential of political commitment. This is the vital ingredient to making progress in reducing road deaths, relevant to every country, everywhere. As research conducted by the Overseas Development Institute and World Resources Institute with the FIA Foundation has shown, political ownership of traffic safety and consistent, strategic leadership recognising and encompassing the needs of all road users, including the most vulnerable and marginalised, is the crucial difference between success and failure. The research finds that a key driver of low political engagement is the mythical belief that road user behaviour alone is to blame for crashes, that government is an innocent bystander. The best antidote to this convenient belief is the Safe System, which locates ultimate responsibility for road traffic deaths and serious injuries squarely with the system designers and their political masters, and compels action within an ethical dimension framed by human rights – a philosophy originating in Sweden.

Too many governments still refuse to take real responsibility. India loses the equivalent of a city’s population every year, millions more maimed and injured, a war-scale toll by any measure. Yet new traffic safety legislation has languished in its parliament for years, while enforcement of existing rules is haphazard. Kenya’s parliament eventually passed its own (watered down) traffic safety legislation but more than a year later hasn’t yet followed through with the regulatory processes necessary for implementation of speed reduction measures. Bangladesh, which this summer saw widespread youth demonstrations sparked by the killing of two students in a traffic crash, takes a traditional behavioural approach in response which will achieve almost nothing and be forgotten once the fuss has died down. The richest country in the world, the USA, has (rising) traffic death levels comparable to rapidly motorising emerging economies. All these, and many more, could benefit from exposure to the ambition, vision, evidence-based rigour and grown-up policymaking represented by their 2020 host.

Where national and city authorities do step up, the results can be impressive. France has worked hard since the early 2000s on a renewed national effort to reduce road traffic injuries, most recently with the Macron government taking tough and controversial decisions to reduce speed limits. Russia has shown the same determined commitment to road safety at home as internationally, and is driving down casualty numbers. China is investing in safer road infrastructure at home (and should offer the same in its many client countries). New York City is bucking the national trend because Mayor di Blasio has staked his reputation on achieving Vision Zero. Vietnam has kept a sustained focus on motorcycle helmet use and reaped the benefits of reductions in serious head injury, while openly recognising there is still much to do. There are many other examples of progress, particularly in cities which are embracing the Safe System approach.

So there are grounds for optimism. But there should be so many more countries stepping up. One obstacle to building political commitment is that road safety suffers from the lack of an international policy feedback loop. Health issues that matter to the international community and its major institutions become part of power conversations and make their way into G20 communiques and World Health Assembly resolutions. This may be sparked by a combination of emergency, by expert leadership and advocacy, by the passion of a persuasive powerful individual - a head of state, rock star or billionaire philanthropist - or by a groundswell of concern from countries that are then reflected in the global agenda, in turn reinforcing national action. Sustained advocacy with presidents and prime ministers helped to smooth the path to the Decade of Action, and we were fortunate to have committed celebrity advocate support from Michael Schumacher and Michelle Yeoh, both encouraged to get involved by then Ferrari F1 principal Jean Todt. But road traffic injury has not yet been taken up as a cause by an opinion former capable of genuinely moving the needle. The efforts of the FIA High Level Panel for Road Safety to engage presidents, CEOs and institutional leaders could yet succeed in securing a political advocate who can provide the long-term high level commitment to take the issue to the next level.

The other missing element is funding. Of course, launching the Decade of Action in the midst of a global economic storm of a scale not seen since the 1930s didn’t help. But ignored issues don’t get fashionable and don’t tend to get funded, whatever the economic weather, so it should be little surprise that the international financing raised to catalyse road safety during the Decade of Action has so far been pocket-change. Bloomberg Philanthropies has been the only major health funder to step up. Our foundation has also done what it can with relatively modest means. Companies like Johnson & Johnson, Michelin, UPS and FedEx have been generous. But we are all scraping along on cents when we should be powered by dollars.

This is why it is so important that the new UN Road Safety Trust Fund inspires and catches the imagination of donors with a strong strategic prospectus. There is a compelling case for investment – research we’ve commissioned from leaders in the burgeoning social impact field demonstrates how important it is to communicate the real and lasting costs of injuries, particularly brain trauma, and directly link their prevention to specific interventions – and we have the solutions. But to succeed the new Fund also needs to reach out to allies beyond the narrow road safety field, to make common cause with climate funds, to deliver healthy streets for walking and cycling; to build action on the leading killer of adolescents into the priorities of the Global Financing Facility working with countries for maternal, adolescent and child health; and align where useful with efforts to improve urban air quality and tackle non-communicable diseases.

This is a key message of the Child Health Initiative’s latest report, Unfinished Journey. The road safety community has been too insular and to some extent, with the Decade of Action, we bricked ourselves up in a small, impoverished ghetto. The SDGs have provided an opportunity to break out, to connect with broader agendas and communicate the ways in which tackling road traffic injury – and the root causes that contribute to it, like poverty, social inequities in urban and economic planning, poor governance and the absence of regulatory ground rules – can also complement and benefit broader agendas. The SDGs also offer the best framework we have to create the peer pressure, the global conversation, to force accountability from governments and international institutions, so that they recognise and act on their responsibilities.

So, as the work begins to develop the agenda for Stockholm 2020, and to anticipate the expiration of the Decade of Action and the health 3.6 SDG target on road safety in 2020, some objectives should be clear: to do all we can to further integrate with the mainstream of global development and extend the deadline of SDG target 3.6 to 2030; to make ourselves indispensable partners to other causes; and to build on the many achievements of the Decade of Action - and learn the right lessons from the many failures - so we emerge from Stockholm stronger for the effort that lies ahead.

And, finally, we must channel the anger of those thousands of young Bangladeshi citizens, or the New York parents arrested this summer for protesting the closure of a speed camera programme, and stop being so polite (and here is where road safety NGOs must step forward and be courageous). We must use the time between now and February 2020 to challenge our governments and leaders, to tell them again – as Zoleka Mandela did so powerfully at the last Ministerial in Brasilia - that they are out of excuses, that it is beyond time to make serious and accountable commitments of action and donor resourcing to prevent the avoidable deaths of their own citizens. Because if we are really going to deliver on the vision launched from that room in St Petersburg ten years ago this week, Stockholm 2020 is where all the talking must at last translate into genuine action.

Support our campaign for every child’s right to a safe and healthy journey at www.everylife.org