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FEATURE STORY June 11, 2019

Strong Leadership is Key for Road Safety


  • Using better data and communication to build better roads
  • Improved road safety is vital for economic growth
  • It takes leadership to put road safety firmly on the world’s development agenda

Engineers can design curves and roadbeds so they’re safer. Police can step up enforcement. Planners can route roads through flatter terrain.  Better lights, slower speeds, public campaigns against drinking and driving, all these things cut road deaths and accidents.

But leadership is what really makes a difference.

During UN Road Safety Week in May, the World Bank’s Global Road Safety Facility put the focus on leadership, hosting a high-level conference with representatives from the United Nations, International Road Federation, and the World Bank, among others.

“Addressing road safety requires us to have a clear assessment of its economic impact, and for that we need to build coalitions that reach beyond the transport sector,” said Makhtar Diop, World Bank Vice President for Infrastructure. “Beyond the human tragedy represented by each life lost on the road, decision makers such as Finance and Planning ministers, and the broader public, need to know that this epidemic has a huge cost on society in terms of lost growth, lost productivity and lost human capital. Road crashes are not only a social disaster, but also sap countries of their future.”

1.35 million road deaths a year

And the numbers are huge: 1.35 million people killed in road crashes each year, 20-50 million people seriously hurt. 93 percent of fatalities in occur in developing countries, despite the fact that these countries are home to only 50 percent of the world’s cars and trucks. Road accidents constitute a public health crisis, one that is entirely preventable.

Part of the problem in developing countries is simply the age of the fleet. Amadou Kone, Cote d'Ivoire’s Minister of Transport, told the conference that his country has recently decided to put limits on the age of imported vehicles.  “We have fixed a limit on the number of used vehicle imports that are older than five years in age.” Indeed, he says, “we have noticed that this human factor has a strong correlation with the age of the vehicle: the older the car is, the less attention the driver pays, the newer it is, the more the attention is paid.”

The next big step toward cutting the number of deaths, experts at the Global Road Safety Facility conference said, is collecting, sharing, and using data.  One way to do that is to create road safety observatories across regions like the one operating in Latin America, which are able to systematically assess all transport and road safety interventions, using common methodologies.  Currently regional observatories are being set up in Africa and Asia.

“That's what this UN Road Safety Week is about, it is about leadership and for leadership’s need for data for evidence-based decision-making,” said Radoslaw Czapski, a Senior Infrastructure Specialist at the World Bank, who moderated one of the of the panels.

Better data for better roads

Better data is but one tool for improving road safety. Panelists at the discussion agreed that road safety needs to cut across disciplines and include new ideas about mobility, and encompass health, education, and gender, among other areas.  New voices must join the conversation. The World Bank is actively building safety into its work-- all World Bank projects are required to have a road safety assessment, and the vast majority of the Bank’s approximately 180 current transport projects, totaling almost US$40 billion, have safety elements embedded in them.

“It has taken some time for the transport sector to embrace that there are other players to incorporate into this discussion and in the space, and that has slowed action,” explained Maria Segui-Gomez, Spain’s former Director General for Traffic. “This is rooted in decades that has put all of the blame onto the user for the road, the driver. We’ve convinced ourselves that the drivers are responsible for 90 percent of the crashes, and we know that we humans err most of the time.”

Juan Camilo Ostos, Colombia’s Vice Minister of Transport, agrees that the way to prevent road deaths is by improving transport itself.  “Effective communication between the entities is key. We have made a lot of progress through the council of the national road safety agency, but the challenge is to strengthen even more the integral public policy on the part of all sectors.”

This conference took place with the understanding that world will fail to meet the Sustainable Development Goals 3 and 11, which aim to halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents and to improve public transport with a particular focus on the needs of women, children, older people and those with disabilities.

Next steps

Despite that, the road safety experts at the conference look toward the future with optimism. Next steps range from creating a public space for data collection and sharing, to getting key stakeholders together, to putting road safety firmly on the public agenda. One road death is too many. 1.35 million is unconscionable.