THIS week for only the second time in history, ministers of transport, health and interior and their colleagues from more than 100 countries are convening to tackle the global road safety crisis. The key question on their minds: how can we reduce road traffic deaths and serious injuries 50% by 2020?
Almost half of the 1.25-million people who die each year in road traffic crashes are pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. For people aged 15-29, there is no greater threat to their lives. If realised, achieving such a dramatic decline by the end of the decade would save an astonishing 625,000 lives every year.
While the number of road traffic deaths is stabilising, despite a rapid increase in the number of motor vehicles worldwide and a growing population, the pace of change is too slow. It is also uneven, as rates of road traffic death are more than 10 times higher in the worst-performing countries than they are in the best-performing countries. These are among the findings of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) latest status report on road safety.
The report estimates that in SA, 58% of road traffic deaths can be attributed to alcohol, and fewer than a third of drivers and front-seat occupants wear seatbelts.
The enforcement of drink-driving laws is critical to its effectiveness. Yet SA scored only four out of 10 on perceived effectiveness of enforcement on drink-driving and two out of 10 for enforcing seat-belt laws. Rapid enforcement, random breathalyser tests and police checkpoints have been shown to lead to reductions in alcohol-related crashes.
The second Global High-Level Conference on Road Safety, hosted by the government of Brazil and cosponsored by the WHO, will identify concrete ways to achieve this ambitious target that countries adopted as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The question is: how?
With only five years to go, the focus must be on quick wins. Among them are enacting and enforcing laws on speeding, drinking and driving, and the use of seat-belts, motorcycle helmets and child car seats; modifying infrastructure to include structures such as sidewalks, speed bumps and cycle lanes; ensuring that vehicles are equipped with life-saving technologies including seat-belts, airbags and electronic stability control; and enhancing emergency trauma care for victims of road traffic crashes.
These tasks fall largely on the government, but others too have a role. Local authorities can stringently enforce laws, and, if permitted, adopt even stricter measures such as reducing speed limits around schools.
Vehicle manufacturers can ensure their products meet the safety standards set for high-income countries regardless of where their vehicles are made, sold or used. Managers of large fleets of vehicles can insist on good road safety practice, both in the interest of their employees and the communities they serve. Underpinning all of this is the contribution civil society groups can make towards generating a demand from the public for safer roads.
Governments must also have the courage to put in place the comprehensive data-collection systems that would allow them to produce a more accurate picture of how many people are killed and injured on their roads and where the gaps are in terms of their response. And to give them an indication of where, what needs to go by when, they should develop a national road safety strategy with specific targets and indicators that can be used to measure their specific contribution towards achieving targets.
Unlike other more complex health and development issues, what is needed to improve road safety is no mystery. The interventions are well documented and inherently doable. Vision and political will are all that stand in the way.
- Dr Barber is WHO country representative in SA, and Dr Khan is technical officer: noncommunicable disease prevention and control