The numbers are startling: every year, 1.35 million people lose their lives while driving, cycling, or walking on the road. Another 50 million are seriously injured, and many are left permanently disabled as a result. The road safety crisis is an epidemic comparable to diseases such as Malaria, Tuberculosis or HIV. That's millions of lives shattered, and millions of families torn apart.
Road safety as a development challenge
Beyond the suffering, road safety fatalities and injuries pose a serious challenge to global development. Based on data from select countries, the loss of productivity that derives from road crashes costs our clients an estimated 7 to 22% of their GDP over a 24-year period. In addition to unrealized economic growth, the road safety crisis has profound consequences on the welfare of populations, undermining countries' efforts to create strong communities and build up their human capital. At the household level, the loss of income and medical expenses associated with a crash can spell financial disaster, especially for those who already live on the brink of poverty.
"Tackling the road safety crisis is both a moral imperative and an economic necessity," said Guangzhe Chen, World Bank Senior Director for Transport. "This is a key issue for the World Bank, as developing countries account for 90% of road traffic fatalities, with only half of the world's vehicles. As motorization rates continue to rise across low and middle-income countries, we must reverse the trend and make roads safe for all users."
A strategy to make roads safer
The Bank has been answering the call, and has taken concrete action to stop road deaths.
The Global Road Safety Facility (GRSF), a global partnership program hosted by the World Bank, provides funding, knowledge, and technical assistance to help developing countries create safer roads. The Facility, with financial support from UK Aid and CITA, cooperates closely with World Bank teams and other development partners on a wide range of areas, from infrastructure design and vehicle safety to traffic law enforcement, post-crash response systems, data collection, and institutional strengthening.
This extensive work program reflects the complexity of this agenda. "Road safety is a puzzle with many different pieces," noted Soames Job, Head of GRSF. "You cannot durably reduce fatalities and injuries if you focus on just one dimension and ignore the others. Our role is to see the full picture, and devise comprehensive solutions that will deliver lasting results."
All GRSF activities are guided by one unifying principle: human error is inevitable, so the only effective way of preventing road deaths is to enhance the safety of transport systems themselves. While many road safety policies tend to emphasize the role of user behavior, GRSF strives to focus its attention on the role of all key stakeholders who are in charge of designing, maintaining, and operating transport systems. "People will always be distracted. They will always take risks," added Job. "Therefore, we as a transport community have a responsibility to reimagine road infrastructure, vehicles, and supporting institutions in a way that minimizes the likelihood of serious road crashes—and to make sure that, when a crash does occur, the consequences be as limited as possible." That means smarter road design, traffic calming measures, higher safety standards for vehicles, empowered road safety agencies, and a myriad of other interventions that can all make the difference between life and death.
Since its inception in 2006, the Facility has disbursed a total of $44.6 million to improve road safety in 64 countries. These numbers are even more impressive when you consider that GRSF-supported projects are typically a starting point for other road safety investments. When the Facility conducts a road safety assessment along a road corridor, for instance, the results will often drive governments and development partners to implement design upgrades whose cost will be several times higher than the value of GRSF's initial support. It is estimated that each dollar spent by GRSF translates into an additional $40 of road safety investment.
In addition, GRSF works hand in hand with the Transport Global Practice to design and implement projects that lead to the best possible safety outcomes. The partnership between GRSF and the Transport GP is more critical than ever: in a decade, road safety lending at the World Bank has increased from $56 million in FY06 to an average $223 million per year—a four-fold increase that has boosted demand for road safety expertise across the organization. It is also worth noting that all road transport projects are now mandated to include a road safety component, along with specific indicators.
Walking the talk
Recently, the Bank has reaffirmed its dedication to this agenda by weaving road safety into the very fabric of its operations. The new Environmental and Social Framework includes a Safeguard on road safety, that requires all World Bank projects—whether related to transport or any other sector—to be carefully reviewed to identify and mitigate any potential road safety risks to workers, affected communities, and road users. This requirement applies to all phases of the project cycle. Protecting WBG employees is an important preoccupation as well, which is why all staff are asked to complete a mandatory road safety course before they are allowed to travel to the field.
Every day, the Transport GP, GRSF, and experts across the Bank continue working tirelessly to make roads safe. While the mission may seem daunting at times, we have to remember one thing: like most epidemics, road fatalities and injuries can be prevented. "When you talk about road safety, the word 'accident' gets thrown around a lot," said Chen. "That term is deceiving, though, in that it implies that traffic collisions are down to fate, that they are some sort of random occurrence we cannot control. We have overwhelming evidence showing that this is not the case. Together with our clients and partners, we will keep mobilizing all the necessary knowledge and resources to save lives."