Road safety’s critical role in social progress

Road safety is about drivers and their passengers - correct? No, says Nneka Henry, Head of the UN’s Road Safety Fund.

“Vulnerable road users account for 54% of global road traffic deaths,” she said recently. “People in cars are between eight and 20 times less likely to be killed in a road crash than pedestrians, cyclists or drivers of motorised two-wheelers.

Five hundred children die in crashes every day and, of the older population, women are 17 times more likely to be killed during a car crash than men, even when wearing seatbelts.” 

Her conclusion is that there is a wider issue at stake when it comes to improving road safety – it’s actually about overall wellbeing, quality of life and social justice.

Let’s seize the opportunity

This message was echoed at the first High-level Meeting on Road Safety held at the beginning of July 2022 at the UN General Assembly in New York.

Abdulla Shahid, President of the UN General Assembly, reminded the audience: “Nearly 1.3 million lives are claimed by road traffic accidents every year. As much as 3% of annual GDP in some countries is lost due to road accidents. And road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5-29 years. This must change.”

He picked out four key themes:

  • A universal right to health

“For far too long, we’ve accepted far too many deaths,” he said. “We have allowed the huge range of crucial benefits that arise from safe transport systems to pass us by. Enough is enough. Road safety falls under the umbrella of the universal right to health – a fundamental right of every human being, wherever they are and whatever the circumstances.”

  • Road transport must begin with safety

“Road transport is a complex system, with interconnecting elements that reinforce each other. Safety, therefore must be front and centre in how we organise, design and build our mobility systems.”

  • Governments need to act 

He said: “This includes setting national and sub-national reduction targets; outlining detailed plans for action; employing a whole-of-government approach; ensuring sustainable financing; and putting in place gender-sensitive and non-discriminatory policies and practices.” 

  • Everyone must have a voice 

The ‘safe-systems’ approach favoured by the UN calls on everyone involved to share in the responsibility for road safety and in the design of road safety policies. As Shahid said: “We include young people who are disproportionately affected by road safety incidents. We must also ensure women’s voices and perspectives are heard in designing policies that provide safe, inclusive and secure mobility. And we must take into account the views of those in vulnerable situations, such as those with disabilities and older people.”

Global progress

Since 2018, the United Nations Road Safety Fund (UNRSF) has been coordinating the UN’s support to help countries deliver on their promise of a safer and liveable future. Projects range from reclaiming Africa’s streets for pedestrians and cyclists, to expanding safe schools zone models in the Philippines, both of which demonstrated that improved road safety brings about a better quality of life and saves lives.

There has also been encouraging progress in China. Children in cars are now required to use proper child restraint systems, while provinces such as Zhejiang and Jiangsu have made helmet wearing mandatory in their provincial E-bike laws. 

Dr Gauden Galea, World Health Organization Representative to the People's Republic of China, said: “These reforms help to prevent road injuries and deaths, disabilities, financial and job loss, and thus protect our safety, health, security and prosperity.”

How companies can help

The private sector has been involved in Zambia’s drive to improve road safety. Daniel Mwamba, Chairman of the Zambia Road Safety Trust, describes how businesses have helped: 

“Puma Energy Zambia has been funding road safety education through chid road safety education for 50,000 children and radio programmes, resulting in a 50% reduction in traffic fatalities,” he said.

“Additionally, Puma, the FIA Foundation, AMEND, Vital Strategies and FED EX have all contributed to setting up School Zones, with infrastructure to reduce speed around schools, achieving a 100% reduction in child fatalities in those areas. 

He said: “This shows that there is an urgent need for meaningful institutional collaboration between Government and key partners in the business sector if we have to save lives on our roads.”

It’s time to act

This is a global issue. It doesn’t only apply to low- and middle-income countries. Michael Green, CEO of the Social Progress Imperative, has described the United States as having a ‘chronic social-progress problem’. 

He said: “It’s around issues of safety, and not just around homicides, but also things like road safety. For a country that spends off the charts on a percentage of GDP on healthcare, the health outcomes are actually really poor. It’s just not good enough.”

Shahid’s conclusion at the UN General Assembly was that everyone – from urban planners and engineers to academia and civil society – all have an important role to play. Importantly, he stressed that ‘the role of the private sector is crucial’. 

So the challenge is there for every employer – no matter where you operate in the world – to improve road-safety education, to improve the on-road behaviours of your drivers and to reduce speed? Your contribution will be vital to reduce inequalities and improve social justice.

As Shahid concluded: “Let us seize this opportunity.”

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