Six reasons why road safety is an equality and social justice issue

The United Nations General Assembly has an ambitious target of halving the global number of deaths and injuries from road traffic crashes by 2030. But, as the organisation makes clear, this isn’t going to be easy – there are inequalities the world over that make it challenging. 

Approximately 1.3 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes and more than half of all road traffic deaths are among vulnerable road users: pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists. What’s more, 93% of the world's fatalities on the roads occur in low- and middle-income countries, even though these countries only have 60% of the world's vehicles. 

Here are six reasons why a reduction in deaths involves addressing systemic global inequalities.

  1. Road safety disproportionately affects the poorest countries

In 2016 (the latest available WHO data), 93% of road crash deaths occurred in low-income countries (LICs), up from 90% in 2013. There are multiple reasons for this, but among the key factors are more vulnerable pedestrians and motorcycles on the roads (and fewer buses), poor road safety infrastructure and the fallacy in many poorer countries that it’s better to build ‘fast’ roads for economic development than safe ones.

Demographics (younger populations) and topography (mountain roads) also play a part. One easy fix would be the introduction of more laws relating to road safety. 11% of low-income countries have no national speed limit law, and only 22% have a national seatbelt law covering front and rear seat passengers. Likewise, a number of LICs struggle with drink-driving as they cannot conduct effective random breath testing due to the constitutional rights of individuals.

  1. Car safety design prioritises men over women

Former human rights campaigner of the year Caroline Criado-Perez notes that women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in car crashes than men, 71% more likely to be moderately injured and 17% more likely to die.

One problem she cites is that car safety bodies such as EuroNCAP still sometimes use scaled-down male dummies in crash simulations. She writes: “Women are not scaled-down men. We have different muscle mass distribution. We have lower bone density. There are differences in vertebrae spacing. Even our body sway is different. And these differences are all crucial when it comes to injury rates in car crashes.”

Her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men adds that women are often forced to sit closer to the steering wheel so they can see over the dashboard, which heightens the risk of suffering from internal injuries in the event of a crash.

  1. Car safety design disadvantages pregnant women

The situation is even worse for pregnant women, says Criado-Perez. “Even though car crashes are a cause of foetal death related to maternal trauma, we haven’t yet developed a seatbelt that works for pregnant women. Research from 2004 suggests that pregnant women should use the standard seatbelt, but 62% of third-trimester pregnant women don’t fit that design.”

  1. Ethnic minorities more at risk

Research from the USA shows that ethnic/racial minorities are overrepresented in fatalities from motor vehicle crashes (MVC). A report in Forbes highlights that Black, Indigenous and some people of colour die more frequently in road traffic collisions than some other groups. Compared with all other racial groups, American Indian/Alaskan native people had a substantially higher per-capita rate of total traffic fatalities and rate of total traffic deaths, speeding-related fatalities, and pedestrian and bicyclist deaths. Black people had the second-highest rate of total traffic deaths, pedestrian traffic deaths and bicyclist traffic deaths.

“Our nation’s historic inequalities have contributed to an unacceptable imbalance in traffic safety,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the  Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), a nonprofit organisation representing state highway safety offices. “This problem didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t be fixed overnight – but we have to begin taking meaningful steps forward every day to make our roads safe for all people and communities.”

  1. Young people are more likely to die

Traffic accidents are the biggest global killer of young people (between the ages of 5 and 29) — with approximately 500 children losing their lives in crashes every day. The World Health Organization (WHO) notes: “This robs them of the chance to dream and grow and become contributing members of society.” 

  1. The impact of inadequate post-crash care

Highly developed economies tend to be able to get anyone injured in a traffic accident to a high-quality level of medical care within minutes. Less developed economies don’t have that luxury, and delays in detecting and providing care for those involved in a road traffic crash increase the severity of injuries. Care of injuries after a crash has occurred is extremely time-sensitive: delays of minutes can make the difference between life and death. Improving post-crash care requires ensuring access to timely pre-hospital care and improving the quality of both prehospital and hospital care, such as through specialist training programmes.  

Holistic approach needed

The WHO has no doubt that road traffic injuries can be prevented. What it requires is for everyone to take action to address road safety in a holistic manner. 

As the WHO says: “This requires involvement from multiple sectors such as transport, police, health, education, and actions that address the safety of roads, vehicles and road users.” 

And what can employers do? 

Businesses, especially multinationals and large enterprises with significant influence in emerging markets, have a key role to play in raising awareness, sponsoring initiatives that boost road safety, feeding into government consultations and lobbying for change in the countries in which they operate.

Driver safety policies that are mandated and strictly implemented in developed countries should not be neglected in LICs. Otherwise, these global inequalities will never change.


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