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Urban design for safer roads: Insights from EMBARQ Turkey’s RSLab
Making Turkey's roads safer by design

Turkey has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the world. Better road infrastructure design and sustainable mobility can change that, reducing crashes and saving lives. Photo by Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr. 

More than 1.2 million people worldwide are killed in road traffic crashes every year, and an additional 20 to 50 million are injured. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), if urgent action is not taken, these figures will increase by about 65% over the next 20 years, making road traffic crashes the fifth-leading cause of death by 2030. Half of these road fatalities occur just in ten countries, and Turkey has the dubious honor of being among those ten. The Turkish Statistical Institute indicates that in 2013, an average of ten people died and approximately 750 people were injured every day due to traffic crashes in Turkey.

EMBARQ Turkey recently concluded its Road Safety Lab (RSLab), a two-year long project that aims to assess the state of road safety in key Turkish cities and offer transport planning and urban design solutions. The project offers insight for cities worldwide: while human error is a factor in road safety, road design is also a critical determinant of traffic fatalities. An outsized portion of crashes in these cities occurred in just a few particularly dangerous locations. Identifying and improving the design of these “blackspots” is a powerful strategy for saving lives on urban roads.

The role of engineering and design for safer roads

At RSLab’s closing meeting, Beste Gülgün of the WHO pointed out that road fatalities are not merely the result of “accidents.” Deaths caused by road traffic crashes are structural and can be avoided through comprehensive and cost-effective precautions. This is why the United Nations and the WHO have launched the Decade of Action for Road Safety for 2011-2020 to mobilize more than 100 countries and prevent a total of five million deaths from traffic crashes by 2020. 

Speed management, drinking and driving, and helmet or seatbelt use are widely acknowledged risk factors in road safety management. However, road safety challenges cannot be attributed solely to human error, as drivers and other road users adapt their behavior to many external factors. Therefore, road infrastructure design plays a crucial role in reducing fatalities and injuries. According to the Handbook for Road Safety Measures, simply lighting previously unlit roads can reduce fatalities from traffic crashes by 60%, for example.

Where can cities start when improving road design?

In most cases, a few traffic safety hot spots account for a high proportion of crashes. According to RSLab presenter Andre Münche from PTV Group, 50% of avoidable accidents occur only on 10% of the road network. One powerful method to improve road safety – called blackspot management – involves identifying particular locations that are highly problematic and resolving site-specific problems that might be causing human error.

With the support of Bloomberg Philantropies and 3M, the RSLab team has identified 25 critical blackspots for road traffic crashes across five Turkish cities and made a number of reccomendations to improve each blackspot. These range from traffic signalization and pedestrianization designs to improved lighthing. EMBARQ Turkey estimates that these measures could prevent more than 500 crashes and approximately 70 injuries annually. According to RSLab Project Lead Tolga Imamoğlu, a road safety inspection is also a cost-effective measure to include when building new roads. Road safety inspections reduce traffic crashes on average by 30%, with a 1:10 cost-benefit ratio.

Identifying the right blackspots, however, can be challenging; it requires quality data and road design expertise. Imamoğlu mentioned that data accuracy can be hampered by a range of factors such as incorrect GPS information or lack of tracking on the status of injuries after crashes. RSLab Project Analyst Kiarash Ghasemlou emphasized that a well-organized, comprehensive, and accessible data collection system is crucial to correctly identifying blackspots.

Turkey’s speed management problem

Beyond blackspot management, speeding also plays a significant role in crashes and resulting fatalities in Turkey. According to Mustafa Ilıcalı of Bahçeşehir University, 43% of fatalities and injuries from traffic crashes in Turkey are due to speeding. Ilıcalı pointed out, however, that this trend in Turkey is not surprising, given the lack of attention paid to speeding offences. Ilıcalı’s statistics showed that only 18 out of 1,000 drivers receive tickets for speeding in Turkey, compared to 456 of 1,000 in Australia and 558 of 1,000 in the Netherlands. Given the staggering number of road fatalities in Turkey and lack of comprehensive enforcement, speed management has become a focus of numerous organizations and agencies like the WHO and the Turkish Road Association.

One issue brought up by many participants at the RSLab closing meeting was the tension between current transport policies that emphasize making cities safe for pedestrians and those prioritizing the mobility of cars. Although many stakeholders, especially in Turkey, voice similar concerns, conceiving urban mobility more broadly as the safe movement of people through sustainable transport policy and planning is a way of resolving this tension. Road safety as a public health problem is not an isolated issue. Rather, it is closely linked with behaviors and trends in other areas such as access to public transport or level of vehicle emissions. As one aspect of sustainable transport policy, better road design can make roads safer for all users, whether on foot, on bikes, or in cars.

View photos from the closing meeting of RSLab on Flickr

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