New WHO Report a Reminder that Road Safety Progress is “Too Slow”

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) new report on road safety makes clear the need for renewed effort to decrease traffic fatalities and injuries. (Photo: Harvey Barrison/ Flickr)

Today (October 19), the World Health Organization (WHO) released its latest Global status report on road safety, previously published in 2013. The Global status report is the authoritative document for traffic safety, documenting global traffic deaths, analyzing the causes of traffic-related injuries and fatalities, and identifying ways to make progress. The report notes that 1.25 million people are dying every year in road traffic crashes, and explains that progress on road safety is “too slow”—especially for those living in middle- and low-income countries.

The report anticipates that challenges for road safety are only going to grow. By 2050, 2.5 billion more people will be living in cities—66 percent of the world’s population. Current patterns of urbanization, which overwhelmingly prioritize private vehicles, are already failing to meet the challenge of sustainably and safely accommodating so many people. Cities must focus on developing and encouraging sustainable modes of transport—such as mass transportation and biking—while putting in place the necessary measures to ensure that new programs are safe. The time is now to plan for road safety in cities.

Designing Safer Cities for All

First, we must recognize that problems in road safety are disproportionately affecting the world’s most vulnerable populations. Indeed, 90 percent of all traffic-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, and it has been consistently demonstrated that the world’s poor are significantly more at risk of dying in traffic crashes. The WHO’s new report is a reminder of how important it is that we create safer streets that prioritize those that have been left behind—such as pedestrians, persons with disabilities, women and children.

While rapid urbanization could strain road safety in the coming years, new development is also an opportunity to save lives. With 75 percent of urban infrastructure yet to be built by 2050, cities should start thinking of road safety through street design. Indeed, streets that are designed unsafely, such as those designed long and wide to allow massive numbers of cars to move quickly, will very likely kill many vulnerable users of the road. Cities can drive down traffic fatality rates by ensuring safe access to high-quality public transport, creating dedicated space for pedestrians, combating urban sprawl and slowing down traffic on roads.

The disparity in traffic fatalities between high-income and low-income countries is massive.

The WHO’s Global status report on road safety 2015 shows that while some progress is being made, the number of road traffic deaths among pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists is still intolerably high. Decision makers should consider every road fatality a failure of the system—since these deaths are preventable—and strive to create streets where no lives are lost. This Vision Zero approach rejects the notion that traffic crashes are a normal part of our mobility needs, and challenges cities to take responsibility for the safety of their streets. Achieving this vision requires a three-pronged approach: (1) decision makers who influence street design should take responsibility for road safety outcomes; (2) cities must set both short-term and long-term goals; (3) city leaders must demonstrate passion and vision in bringing together the funding and stakeholders needed to make change happen.

Aligning Road Safety with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

This year’s Global status report on road safety plays a defining role in establishing baselines and providing context for the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are a universal set of goals and indicators that UN member states are expected to work toward together—for example, the eradication of global poverty and food insecurity. Monday’s report is particularly timely since the UN’s latest agreement identifies two explicit goals on road safety. First, Goal 3.6 demands that by 2020, the world halves the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents. Goal 11.2 calls on leaders to provide safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all (especially vulnerable populations) by 2030.

Decision makers working on road safety have largely been operating on information generated in the WHO’s 2013 report, which assessed data from 2010. By comparing the two documents, it is clear that traffic related deaths remain unacceptably high (lingering at 1.25 million deaths per year). This is evidence that there is gap between what we are doing and what we need to do to create safer roads for all—especially vulnerable groups.

The WHO’s report on road safety is a critical document that informs the ways that decision makers think about road safety, particularly in terms of scale. With traffic crashes the ninth leading cause of death among all age groups, and predicted to be the seventh leading cause of death by 2030, the WHO’s new data is yet another call to action for local leaders. To save lives, decision makers should work with urban planners to design safer streets, slow road speeds and protect the road’s most vulnerable users.

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