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Getting to zero traffic fatalities: What will it take?

Irene Portabales González's picture
Also available in: Español
Photo: Geraint Rowland
We must stop deaths on the roads. No one would argue with that, of course. But for us who live in Peru and many other developing countries, the importance of making road safety a global development priority really hits home—especially after a string of dramatic crashes that have made headlines across the country.

Last February, a bus fell to the bottom of a 200-metre ravine and left 45 dead in Arequipa, including several children. A month before, the country witnessed its deadliest traffic crash on record when a bus plunged down a cliff in Pasamayo, just north of Lima, killing some 52 people.

According to government data, 89,304 traffic crashes were reported on the Peruvian road network in 2016, with a total of 2,696 fatalities. However, the latter figure only includes deaths occurring within 24 hours of a crash, and does not account for victims who may die from their injuries later on.

The global statistics are equally concerning. The World Health Organization (WHO) shows in its Global status report on road safety 2015 that traffic crashes represent one of the main causes of death globally, and is actually the leading cause for people aged 15 to 29.

According to this report, 1.25 million people died on the world’s roads in 2013. The most vulnerable users make up half of the death toll: pedestrians accounted for 22% of the total, motorcyclists for 23%, and cyclists for 4%. An additional 50 million people are estimated to be injured each year, many of whom find themselves permanently disabled as a result.

The economic impact of road traffic injuries needs to be highlighted as well. In its study on the Socioeconomic Impact of Traffic Accidents, the Peruvian National Health Institute estimates that the cost of road crashes in the country is equivalent to 2% of its Gross Domestic Product each year. That includes not only direct costs related to healthcare, compensations and civil liabilities, but also indirect losses of productivity due to premature death or disability. As highlighted in a recent World Bank report on the economic impact of road traffic injuries in developing countries, the road crash costs not only affect GDP growth but also has a significant impact of the societal welfare benefits.

In that context, road safety is drawing increasing attention from the international community.

To mobilize action, the World Health Organization has defined the period 2011-2020 as the Decade of Action for Road Safety, developing an ambitious plan to reduce road deaths.

In parallel, the United Nations explicitly refers to road safety in its Sustainable Development Goals: as part of goal 3 on health and well-being, target 3.6 seeks to “halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents” by 2020, while goal 11 on sustainable cities and communities calls for “safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all” by 2030 (target 11.2).

In Lima, the recent National Road Safety Congress set out to identify key priorities and outline an action plan for the near future. The event embraces the principles of the Safe System Approach with a goal for Vision Zero, an innovative approach to road safety based on the premise that, although human error is inevitable, road deaths and injuries are not and are largely preventable, and could effectively be brought down to… well, zero!

To achieve this, Vision Zero recommends a comprehensive, systematic, and multi-sectoral strategy approach where all relevant stakeholders and road users have a part to play, with a focus on evidence-based interventions such as:
  • Safer vehicles: Adopt regulatory framework on vehicle safety standards including crashworthiness and periodic inspections for the fleet. This should align with inclusion of newer technological innovations that can protect both vehicle occupants and outside vulnerable road users.

  • Safer roads: Design the road system beyond safety standards but in such a way that human errors do not result in fatalities; adapt the urban environment based on principles of “safe by design”; improve collection and monitoring of road crash data as well as road user behavior data related to safety.

  • Safer people: Strengthen the driver’s license system; improve road safety education; monitor compliance with traffic and safety regulations such as the use of child restraint systems or helmets for motorcyclists.

  • Safer speeds: Establish adequate speed limits appropriate for each type of environment and road user type, for example by limiting the speed in urban areas to 50 km/h and creating 10, 20 and 30-km/h zones to improve conditions for walking and other non-motorized modes.

  • Institutional capacity: To make the above possible, Visio Zero also seeks to promote strong institutions through better data systems and effective coordination mechanisms.
While Peru and others have made progress in several of these areas, we still have a long way to go before Vision Zero becomes reality. The tragedies in Arequipa or Pasamayo remind us of the magnitude of this epidemic, and gatherings like the one in Lima show that, for the most part, we already know what kind of solutions are needed to make this happen. For all of us working in transport, the next big challenge will be effective implementation. This is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.