Driver Safety – A Global Challenge

The United Nations General Assembly has long been concerned that the overwhelming majority of road traffic deaths and serious injuries are preventable and it regards reducing such deaths and injuries as an economic and social priority. 

“Human suffering, combined with costs to some countries of up to 5% of their gross domestic product a year, makes reducing road traffic deaths and injuries both an economic and a social priority.” (UN General Assembly, Resolution adopted 31 August 2020)

Global figures suggest that every year more than 1.35 million lives are lost as a result of road traffic accidents. Up to a further 50 million people receive non-fatal injuries annually, with many incurring a lasting disability.

Road traffic deaths are now the eighth-leading cause of death for all age groups – killing more people than tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS – and they are the leading cause of death for children and young adults between the ages of 5 and 29.

Among the UN’s other findings are that:

  • More than 90% of the world’s fatalities on the roads occur in low- and middle-income countries, even though these countries have only 60% of the world’s vehicles.

  • Road traffic injury death rates are highest in Africa. 

  • Even within high-income countries, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to be involved in road traffic crashes.

In terms of regions, Africa suffers the most, with the sub-Saharan region having a particularly poor record for road traffic deaths. Unfortunately, there has been little progress in reducing the number of deaths from road traffic incidents in this region, or any low-income country according to the World Health Organization’s 2018 Global Status Report on Road Safety.

Indeed, researchers from Ghana noted recently, with some understatement, that there is the need to address the “epidemic carnage” of road traffic injuries, many of which are preventable, “since they arise from human actions and inactions”.

India also fares particularly badly when it comes to road traffic accidents. The Economic Times of India reported earlier this year that although the country accounts for only 1% of the world's vehicles, it contributes 11% of global deaths in road accidents, the highest in the world, with 53 road crashes every hour; killing one person every four minutes.

Unfortunately, the number of road traffic accidents is compounded by healthcare shortcomings in many countries, which means that those who survive the initial crash have no guarantee of adequate post-crash care. As one report puts it: “The proportion of patients who die before reaching a hospital in low-income countries is over twice that in high-income countries.”

You might think that countries with highly developed economies would be safer – and generally they are – but among higher-income countries, the one that suffers the most road-crash deaths is the United States, with a death rate approximately 50% higher than Canada, Australia, Japan and the bigger economies in Western Europe. Whether American citizens realise it or not, getting into a car is perhaps the most dangerous thing they do on a daily basis, with around 40,000 Americans dying in car accidents each year.

Within Europe, the risk for drivers is greatest in Romania, which had 96 road deaths per million inhabitants in 2019. It is closely followed by Bulgaria (89 road deaths per million) and Poland (77). The country at the other extreme is Sweden with 22 road deaths per million.

Occupational hazards

Driving is clearly a risk for those whose occupation involves being behind the wheel – this is true to a greater or lesser extent across all countries. What often goes unappreciated is how extreme this risk is. Globally, in one list of the most dangerous professions, truck drivers, sales workers and other drivers come in at the sixth-most dangerous in the world, being viewed in the same light as logging (the most dangerous occupation globally), closely followed by commercial fishing and those who fly aircraft for a living. 

In the UK, according to ROSPA, after deep-sea fishing and coal mining, driving 25,000 miles a year on business is the third most dangerous activity, while in the United States the most common workplace deaths are related to transportation, with transportation accidents accounting for more than 2,000 work-related deaths, the equivalent of 40% of all work-related fatalities. 

Paul Leigh is professor emeritus in the Department of Public Health Sciences at UC Davis, and the author of two books about dangerous jobs and occupational safety and health. He wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that “Uber and Lyft drivers face fatal risks that are 1.1 and 2.6 times the fatality rate for police officers and firefighters. And the corresponding estimates for GrubHub drivers are 2.0 and 4.4.”

“These high-risk statistics are not new,” he said. “Occupational death and injury rates for the categories of taxi driver and sales rep have been very high for decades.” 

How to reduce risk?

These statistics make it abundantly clear there is a pressing need to make driving safer. As an earlier Brightmile article found, the ‘true cost’ of a road traffic death is far more than just one life lost.  

With one in three fatal crashes involving someone driving for work, companies have a large part to play. Forward-thinking health and safety managers are acting as pioneers for safer driving in developing countries, with knock-on consequences for overall levels of road safety. According to Pankaj Singh, Head of Road Safety at Holcim India, “with large numbers of vulnerable road users, even a minor impact causes high severity and that's where the need for and importance of driver behaviour correction comes in. 

“It is well known that ‘if you measure, you can improve’ and it’s the principle we applied to get the desired results. Given the level of occupational risk involved, enhanced awareness and the technologies available in the market, we are now able to address this risk proactively. I expect this to be a trend we can observe across India in the coming years.”

Global health and safety managers are also able to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and best practices from one country to another. In his Brightmile Q&A, Nikolay Popov describes how “Brightmile gives SGS benchmarkable data across countries, lines of business, and teams, allowing us to create a healthy sense of competition that makes people improve. Even if local managers feel comfortable in their own country, they might see that driving is much safer in another country. They might look outside their own current risk level and realise it is still three times higher than others.” 

There is no simple global solution, but by helping companies reduce speeding, contextual risk, fatigue, smartphone distraction and aggressive acceleration, Brightmile hopes to play its part in making roads everywhere in the world significantly safer.

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