A new Decade of Action for Road Safety: WHO seeks to reduce road traffic deaths by 50%

The new Decade of Action for Road Safety, running 2021-2030, will require ‘bold and decisive action'

The 10-year extension to the global road safety initiative, which was launched in October 2021 by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Regional Commissions (UN), seeks to reduce global road traffic deaths and injuries by at least 50% by 2030. 

It’s an ambitious target, but one that seems appropriate. As Dr Etienne Krug, the Director of the Department of the Social Determinants of Health at the WHO, points out:

“More than 50 million people have died on the world’s roads since the invention of the automobile. This is more than the number of deaths in World War One.”

The progress made during the previous Decade of Action (2011-2020) has laid the groundwork for further advances. Among the first decade’s achievements are “the inclusion of road safety on the global health and development agenda, broad dissemination of scientific guidance on what works, strengthening of partnerships and networks, and mobilisation of resources.” 

At one level, the new ‘Global Plan’ promises more of the same – emphasising the importance of a holistic approach to road safety, calling for continued improvements in the design of roads and vehicles; enhancement of laws and law enforcement; and the provision of timely, life-saving emergency care for the injured. 

However, the Global Plan makes clear that ‘business as usual’ will not be enough. Instead, it wants governments and global stakeholders to act ‘boldly and decisively’. 

Preventable deaths

Without this bold and decisive action, it’s possible we will see a further 13 million deaths and 500 million injuries over the coming decade, particularly affecting low- and middle-income countries. These nations account for more than 90% of all road traffic deaths, despite having less than 60% of the world’s motor vehicles. As the authors of the WHO/UN report point out, “every one of those deaths and injuries is preventable”.

Deepanshu Gupta, vice president of the India Road Safety Campaign (IRSC), a non-profit group he co-founded with students and alumni of IIT-Delhi after his father was involved in a serious road traffic accident, commented that India has to play a big role to see that the global target is met. As he noted in the Times of India, “since the number of fatalities registered [in India] is more than the combined road deaths of several countries.” 

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus drew attention to the cost beyond the headline deaths and accidents: “The loss of lives and livelihoods, the disabilities caused, the grief and pain, and the financial costs caused by road traffic crashes add up to an intolerable toll on families, communities, societies and health system,” he said.

“So much of this suffering is preventable, by making roads and vehicles safer, and by promoting safe walking, cycling and greater use of public transport. The Global Plan lays out the practical, evidence-based steps all countries and communities can take to save lives.”

SDGs add weight

One of the main causes for optimism is that road safety has been included in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (targets 3.6 and 11.2). This recognises that “death and injury from road crashes are now among the most serious threats [to] countries’ sustainable development.” It should mean that road safety is an integrated component of child health and climate action agendas, for example, and cannot be compromised or traded off to achieve other social needs. 

The Global Plan also acknowledges that speeding, drink-driving, driver fatigue, distracted driving and the non-use of seatbelts are among the key behaviours contributing to road injury and death. It states that globally more than 3,500 people die each day on roads, which amounts to almost 1.3 million preventable deaths and an estimated 50 million injuries per year, making it the leading killer of children and young people worldwide.

Among the recommendations that the plan highlights are basing insurance premiums on driver performance to incentivise drivers to comply with traffic laws and rules. For example, it calls for the implementation of infrastructure that ensures compliance with speed limits (eg 30km/h in urban centres, a maximum of 80km/h on undivided rural roads and 100 km/h on expressways). 

It also suggests that corporations should “develop protocols that ensure safe operation of their fleets, including allowing for reasonable delays to prevent speeding, setting limits on driving hours by delivery drivers, and monitoring the driving behaviours of drivers”.

A role for everyone

Will the new Decade of Action be a success? Its predecessor aimed to reduce the predicted number of deaths over the 10-year period by 50%. A recent analysis from 160 countries showed “little reduction in total global deaths”, but there were widespread policy improvements. However, the survey also highlighted the disappointing news that respondents from 68 countries felt it had been neither a success nor a failure. 

Even so, the authors’ conclusion was that “despite the ambivalence on success, most participants felt the decade should be extended to 2030 and beyond, as it “provided a useful framework for action”.

And the new Global Plan is a step in the right direction. As the text notes: “It is aimed to inspire countries, including governments and partners to act boldly and decisively, using the tools and knowledge gained from the last Decade of Action to change course. It should be used as a blueprint to inform and inspire national and local plans that are tailored to local contexts, available resources and capacity.” 

It's also worth remembering that the Global Plan is not just aimed at senior policy-makers, but all stakeholders who can influence road safety, such as civil society, academia and the private sector. If the ambitious targets are to be met – and lives are to be saved – we will all have a role to play.

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