Global road fatalities remain unacceptably high and rethinking mobility is the only solution

A busy road in Bangkok, Thailand with many types of road users.
A busy road in Bangkok, Thailand with many types of road users.

Historically, roads have prioritized the movement of cars and trucks, while facilities for pedestrians and cyclists have typically been an afterthought. This one-sided and, ultimately, misguided approach led to more and more people preferring to get around in personal vehicles rather than using public transport, cycling, or walking. The phrase “build it, and they will come” rang true. 

The impact has been devastating. In the roughly 150 years since the first motor vehicle death was officially recorded, tens of millions of people have been killed in road crashes. The magnitude of this crisis is enormous, especially if one also considers the hundreds of millions seriously injured in the same period. 

Vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists are most at risk, and together with motorcyclists account for more than half the deaths on the world’s roads each year. These unprotected road users are also the least likely to harm others on the roads.


The Global Road Safety Facility interviewed World Bank leaders to ask why road safety is a key priority.


As a road engineer, it is painful to admit that road transport accounts for 97% of fatalities from all modes of transport and is the leading cause of death globally for young people. Road fatalities are equivalent to seven large passenger planes crashing every day. If there were anything near this number of daily fatalities in the aviation industry, would you still fly? 

Road safety also has severe yet hidden implications for growing economies: road crashes cost low- and middle-income countries the equivalent of roughly 6 percent of annual GDP, on average, due to lost economic activity and significant public healthcare expenses. 

Despite a United Nations Decade of Action from 2011 to 2020 that aimed to halve global road deaths over that 10-year period, the crisis has only worsened in absolute terms. The WHO estimates that 1.35 million people are dying yearly on the roads—100,000 above the 2011 baseline of 1.25 million. We need to do better.

A Second Decade of Action proclaimed in 2020, has taken over the target of halving global road fatalities over 10 years—this time by 2030—and encourages governments and stakeholders to act boldly using knowledge gained from the previous Decade of Action. The only way to do so is to #RethinkMobility, which is the theme of this year’s United Nations Global Road Safety Week (May 15-22).

Fundamentally, we need to shift our thinking from moving vehicles to moving people. To do that, we need a new mobility hierarchy that prioritizes people above vehicles, and that values safety, sustainability, and inclusion above all else.  And if we are to significantly reduce the yearly fatality rate, we need to do more than just discard the old “car-first” mindset—we must also match this people-centric approach with a massive increase in investment.


A  ?flipped? mobility pyramid for prioritizing transport modes, based on vulnerability of road users.

A  ”flipped” mobility pyramid for prioritizing transport modes, based on vulnerability of road users.


To help ensure this second decade of action is more successful than the first, there is an urgent need to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists and prioritize walkability in urban areas, especially as urbanization rates in low- and middle-income countries remain high. Boosting investment in safe, inclusive, and sustainable mobility infrastructure will be crucial in reducing the number of road fatalities worldwide. It will also come with additional benefits. Encouraging a shift to walking, cycling, and other physically active ways of getting around not only plays an important role in improving road safety, it also contributes to reducing transport emissions, improving local air quality, decreasing traffic congestion, and lowering obesity rates.

Also critical will be mainstreaming the “Safe System” approach to road safety, which focuses on preventing fatal crashes and reducing the severity of injuries when collisions do occur. By recognizing that humans are fallible and will inevitably make mistakes, the Safe System approach promotes a holistic road mobility system with many built-in redundancies that is forgiving of driver error and greatly reduces the risk of serious injury or death.



Principles of the “Safe System” approach to road safety

The World Bank’s Global Road Safety Facility (GRSF) is working closely with partners to pioneer people-first road safety solutions and catalyze road safety investments in low- and middle-income countries. To mark the 7th UN Global Road Safety Week, GRSF has put together a page of resources related to the #RethinkMobility theme and is highlighting its work in the Philippines, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Bolivia promoting safe mobility for all road users. Let’s #RethinkMobility together to ensure that road users all over the world can get to where they’re going, safely. 

With thanks for contributions to Benjamin Holzman and Hanayo Taguchi.


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