By Nneka Henry and Namita Shah
There was a global sigh of relief, especially among parents and caregivers, when reports began to confirm that children and youth were relatively safe from the virus causing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Hidden behind by the headlines on COVID-19, however, are devastating statistics on the lives being claimed by road traffic crashes. Globally, road injuries kill more children and youth than any other cause.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals contain two global targets on road safety. SDG target 3.6 calls to halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic crashes – a global imperative which was extended until 2030 by a UN General Assembly resolution adopted last August. SDG target 11.2, on a 2030 timeframe, calls for improving road safety in the provision of access to transport systems and expanding public transport. Today, if you are between the ages of 5 to 29, you are more likely to die from a road traffic crash than any other cause, especially if you happen to be a road user – whether citizen or tourist – in developing countries where 93% of the world’s 1.3 million road traffic deaths occur.
A quick comparison between high-income countries and low-income countries shows where we need to target future efforts if we want to make meaningful progress towards halving road crash fatalities and injuries. With an average rate of 27.5 deaths per 100,000 population, the risk of road traffic death is more than three times higher in low-income countries than in high-income countries, where the average rate is 8.3 deaths per 100,000 population. Concretely this means that lower-income countries like the Dominican Republic, Gambia, Liberia, Saint Lucia, Rwanda, Thailand, and Zimbabwe count over 29 deaths per 100,000 population every year due to road crashes, compared to 0 in Antigua and Barbuda and Monaco, 2 in Iceland and Singapore, 4 in Japan, and between 5 to 6 in Australia, Canada, Italy, and the EU.
Closing the gap will take a whole-of-society approach. Here are three ways we can make streets safer for children and youth everywhere.
First, we need to educate children and young people on safe road use. Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Truer words could not have been said, and key players in the global road safety agenda like TotalEnergies and Michelin have taken this to heart. Three years ago, the TotalEnergies Foundation and the Michelin Corporate Foundation helped to launch the United Nations Road Safety Fund, the UN instrument mandated to leverage funding for high-impact road safety projects in low and middle-income countries. The first round of projects from this global fund included a focus on road safety education and resulted in universities embedding road safety modules in their curriculum on urban design, civil engineering, and architecture.
A year later, TotalEnergies Foundation and Michelin Group joined forces to develop and launch the VIA educational program in Cameroon, France and India, to promote safe road behavior among young people aged 10 to 18 years old. In Cameroon, the project is well underway and is being implemented in ten schools across two cities, reaching more than 1,000 students.
These investments in educating young people are forecasted to have a notable economic payout, in addition to the obvious life-saving effects. The World Economic Forum’s ‘Future of Nature and Business’ report predicts that a global systemic shift towards safer and sustainable shared mobility could deliver USD10.1 trillion of annual business opportunities and 395 million jobs by 2030.
Second, substantially reducing road traffic deaths call for innovation, innovation, and more innovation.
Road traffic crashes are largely preventable. Many high-income countries have already proven this to be the case. In Switzerland, Norway, Antigua and Barbuda, Monaco, and Iceland, strong government commitment coupled with smart mobility solutions such as adding roundabouts, reducing road blind spots, conducting public awareness campaigns, bolstering the enforcement of speed limits, and better regulating vehicle safety can dramatically reduce road fatalities. The EU and countries are also, through the Vision Zero approach reaffirmed in the context of the Second Decade of Action on Road Safety 2021-2030, , doubling their efforts to ensure zero road fatalities and serious injuries within this generation.
For developing countries whose resources are stretched thin, the key to making streets safer for young people will rest in the ability to develop and scale innovative road safety solutions that are adapted to national and cultural contexts. Early attempts have been made with Cameroon’s “Traveler” app and Kenya’s “Matserve Msafiri” app, which both track bus speed and allow for reporting unsafe driving or enabling speedy emergency road crash response.
More recent solutions include carpooling platforms in Algeria, Brazil, India, and Ukraine. According to the recent BlaBla car “Zero Empty Seat” report, drivers tend to drive more safely when carpooling by reducing speed, limiting phone use while driving, wearing vehicle safety restraints, and checking tires more regularly. Carpooling also has a significant impact on the environment, avoiding the emission of up to 15,200 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2018.
Third, we need clear metrics to measure improvements in road safety, which will also help to attract financial resources where most needed.
The UN Road Safety Fund and its partners are exploring ways to set better metrics by upgrading an online tool for global road safety decision-making. The tool was first developed in 2018 by the UN Economic Commission for Europe to help countries map road safety gaps and use country data to forecast long-term reduction in road fatalities according to which road safety interventions are implemented today. The goal is to update the tool’s data set, ahead of the UN High-Level Meeting on Road Safety in July 2022, and ensure its future use as a global public good for at least 130 countries.
Perhaps it is true that what gets measured gets done, but we also need to finance what we want done. According to the Financing Health Report, HIV/AIDS-related initiatives attracted development assistance of USD1.7 billion in 2019. In contrast, road traffic injuries that kill more people than HIV/AIDS and most other major illnesses did not feature anywhere in the report, indicating that development assistance was not dedicated in any significant way to improving road safety around the world. This staggering fact of underinvestment in tackling one of the world’s deadliest killers will mean that many more millions of people will continue to perish on roads every year, due to the poor road safety measures and behaviour, and this should not be the case.
There is no lasting hope of achieving sustainable development if we do not take appropriate action to safeguard our children and youth. Every child should have the right to a safe journey whether traveling to school, home, or play. As we commemorate International Youth Day, we urge everyone to take new action to keep children safe on our streets.
The authors of this guest article are Nneka Henry (UN Road Safety Fund) and Namita Shah (TOTALEnergies Foundation)