What would it take to halve the number of road deaths by 2020?


The Guardian - Avi Silverman- 1.2 million people die on the roads each year in a ‘man-made epidemic’, but the proposed target to reduce them needs closer scrutiny.

Of the issues that move the development community and the giving public (hunger, extreme poverty, maternal mortality), road safety is barely on the radar. Yet road crashes are a man-made epidemic that accounts for more than 1.2 million deaths a year, the vast majority – 90% – in developing countries. Worldwide road crashes are the number one killer of young people over the age of 15, claim more lives than malaria, and injure tens of millions a year.

So a target on road safety, included in the draft proposal of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), is welcome. But how could it be achieved?

First, the language of SDG target 3.6, which aims “by 2020 to halve global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents”, could be improved. Most experts and practitioners don’t refer to road deaths and injuries as “accidents”, as the term implies there’s nothing that can be done about them. On the contrary, plenty can be done to improve road safety and prevent death and injury. There will always be human error, but a safe system can be designed so that a mistake does not mean a death sentence.

The SDG target would mean reducing the current level of road fatalities worldwide by 50%, to just over 600,000 a year by 2020. This is very ambitious, especially compared with previous targets. In 2011, the UN launched a decade of action for road safety, which aimed to first stabilize and then reduce the projected increase of fatalities to around 1m a year by 2020 – a 16% reduction. With five years left to deadline, more than half of all countries have not met this more manageable target. In many low- and middle-income countries death rates have actually increased. So there’s much work to be done.

The more ambitious new target laid out in the SDGs raises the bar, but this shouldn’t overshadow the fact that progress can be made. The ways by which countries improve road safety have been well-developed, tried and tested. Achieving the target would mean adopting a five-pillar plan comprising safer roads, safer vehicles, safer road users, post-crash response and improved management capacity among national agencies. The measures can be targeted, as in most countries half the casualties occur on just 10% of the road network.

A comprehensive, sustained national programme is not just achievable, it is also affordable, and Argentina is a case in point. With a $50m (£33m) stand-alone road safety loan from the World Bank (a drop in the ocean compared to the $500bn a year spent on road infrastructure projects supported by the multilateral development banks) Argentina has covered all the main “pillars” of the safe system. Key activities include: institutional improvements; police training; better data collection; infrastructure safety, road-user awareness and enforcement in pilot “safety corridors”; strengthening of civil society to run campaigns; road- safety education in schools (9 million students and 500,000 teachers have been reached); and post-crash interventions, including improved emergency response systems.

The impact has been impressive. Argentina, which had a high rate of road fatalities in common with many fast-developing countries, has reduced the number of road fatalities from 14.5 per 100,000 in 2008 to 11.6 per 100,000 in 2011.

Could low and middle income countries follow in Argentina’s footsteps? Individual interventions are comparatively cheap when compared with other public health “best buys”: the cost per death or injury avoided by using speed bumps at high-risk junctions in sub-Saharan Africa is around $7-$10; separating cars and pedestrians in south Asia with a fence can cost as little as $135. And according to the World Health Organization the cost of motorcycle helmet legislation and enforcement in southeast Asia is around 10 cents per person per year, and would prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries.

In many cases, Argentina-level expenditure will be needed, but these cost calculations give a sense of how road safety should be affordable for countries at all income levels. Per-capita calculations are key. If they were to meet the SDG target, high-income countries would reduce their deaths per 100,000 people from 8.7 to 4; middle-income countries would see a reduction from 20.3 per 100,000 to 7 and low-income countries would go from 18.3 to 12.

The question here is not whether the target is achievable but rather if there is enough political will and finance to achieve these goals. Certainly a more reasonable timeframe than 2020 would be helpful (in the initial draft of the SDGs the target was set for 2030) and a strong case should be made for building on the foundations set by the decade of action. But the biggest catalyst for change will come when more donors and governments commit to supporting national road safety legislation and municipal programmes.