Star ratings for roads: a matter of life and death

Improving driver behaviour makes a huge difference to safety, but what about when the roads themselves are the greatest risk? 

In a perfect world, all roads would be safe for all users, whether it’s pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, vehicles or public transport users. Unfortunately, that isn’t the world we live in. At least not yet.  

Despite enormous progress, more than 3,500 people are killed on roads every day and thousands more suffer life-changing injuries. Many are young. According to the WHO, more than 115 000 adolescents died as a result of road traffic accidents in 2019. A sizeable proportion of these were ‘vulnerable’ road users, including pedestrians, cyclists or users of motorised two-wheelers. 

Perhaps surprisingly, there is still global resistance to the idea that infrastructure is a key part of the safety equation. This is the conclusion of Greg Smith, Global Programme Director for the International Road Assessment Programme (iRAP), a charity dedicated to saving lives by eliminating high-risk roads throughout the world. 

He tells Brightmile: “It’s not enough to say we’ve built a road, it’s now up to you to use it safely. Networks are expanding rapidly and while roads built with wide, straight, smooth surfaces might be nice to drive on, as traffic speeds go up and traffic volumes increase, there is a real risk that more people die. 

“If we don’t build safety into roads from the planning and design stages, it’s the equivalent of building a fleet of cars without seatbelts, then trying to go back and fit them later. It’s more expensive, less effective and in the meantime people suffer. We also know that a safe road, which accommodates all road users, is going to operate more smoothly than an unsafe one, especially in urban areas.”

Star ratings for roads?

When it comes to road safety, Greg says that the scale of the response doesn’t yet match the scale of the problem and he’s adamant that infrastructure upgrades and speed management are the most effective ways to achieve 3-star or better roads for all road users. 

Globally, more than 1m kilometres of road have been assessed using the iRAP methodology and they have been classified using a star-rating scheme. A 1-star road would typically have a poor road surface, no sidewalk, no safe crossings, no lanes for cycles or motorbikes, trees or other obstacles close to the road, it would be undivided and have a winding alignment.

To merit 3 stars would require a sidewalk, pedestrian refuge, street lighting, a good road surface, cycle lane/bike lanes, a wide centreline separating oncoming vehicles and a gap of more than five metres to any roadside hazards.

At the top end of the scale, a 5-star road would have off-road dedicated cycle facilities, a dedicated motorbike lane, straight alignment and safety barriers separating oncoming vehicles. 

The rationale for making these kind of improvements stems from the fact that research shows that a person’s risk of death or serious injury is approximately halved for each incremental improvement in star rating.

Greg says: “A series of projects financed by the World Bank that used the iRAP methodology have seen 40% reductions in deaths or more, with investment that is often less than 10% of the cost of the road.”

Global challenges

In developed nations, where people mostly travel in vehicles on 3-star and above roads, enhancements are more likely to include safety barriers at curves and edge-line rumble strips that vibrate when you drive on them. “These have proven highly effective at helping people stay on the road and protecting them in the event they run off the road,” says Greg. “In South-East Asia, where there’s a greater mix of road users on all roads, there can be large benefits in giving motorcyclists a dedicated lane that reduces their interaction with heavier vehicles,” he says. 

“But a universal improvement would be better pedestrian sidewalks and crossings. In Africa, a large percentage of the people killed are pedestrians and in so many cases there just aren’t enough accessible sidewalks. Even when sidewalks are present they may be being used by street vendors or they’re in such bad shape you can’t walk on them. If I had to pick one thing in the world to do, it would be to build  accessible sidewalks and crossings on every road.”

Just 10 countries account for more than half of the world’s road deaths

Greg says that just 10 countries account for more than half of the world’s road deaths. “Around one in five road deaths happen in India, so we’re very keen to support efforts already being made there. Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria are also countries where there is an enormous opportunity to make a difference.”

In Brazil, for example, the government is beginning to require that concession road operators invest to lift the star ratings of the roads they operate, and if they exceed their targets they have the opportunity to receive a financial bonus. It therefore makes good business sense for the operators to invest in safety, while the community benefits by having safer roads and the health system benefits with fewer trauma victims to care for. 

Infrastructure vs driver behaviour

“You can’t disconnect people from the infrastructure and the vehicles they’re using,” says Greg. “We need to get to a point where people always drive within the speed limit and are respectful of the context they’re driving in; they’re not drunk, tired or distracted by their phone; and they’re wearing seat belts. The role of the road infrastructure is then to minimise the risk that a crash occurs and, if it does happen, to minimise its impact. With that combination, serious trauma can be eradicated.”

“Road design has a material impact on risk,” concludes Greg, “so I’d urge everyone to find out the star rating of the roads they drive on regularly. If ratings are not available, ask the local road authority to see if they can be produced. Once people get those metrics, it can change behaviour. Not just the behaviour of road users, but road planners and designers as well. People don’t want one- or two-star roads, but until they’ve measured their roads they might not appreciate that they could have risk of death and injury built in.”

He also has a message for business. “It’s well known that driving is one of the most risky professions, but virtually all business have exposure to road crashes whether it’s via their products, employees, suppliers or customers. By understanding their footprint, including the role that 1- and 2-star rated roads play, businesses help to reduce the cost of trauma.”

Road design: a work in progress

81% of roads where traffic flows at 80km/h or more are undivided 

79% of roads where traffic flows at 80km/h or more have dangerous roadsides 

73% of intersections where traffic flows at 60km/h or more have no safe-turning provision

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