Road safety matters, more so during COVID-19

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COVID-19 has been a very necessary alarm bell to think consciously about the future of transport and road safety.
COVID-19 has been a very necessary alarm bell to think consciously about the future of transport and road safety. Photo - Manoej Paateel / Shutterstock.com

I vividly remember the 7,400 shoes piled up in Stockholm’s Central Railway station in February this year – each pair representing one of the road crash victims who die every day. This somber display set the stage for the Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety, where world leaders renewed their political will to fight road crash deaths, the ‘silent epidemic’ that kills over a million people every year.

By the time I returned from Stockholm, the world was already battling a new deadly pandemic, wreaking havoc on people’s lives, livelihoods and the global economy. In South Asia alone, COVID-19 has killed over 100,000 people, and the region is set to plunge into its worst-ever recession, pushing millions into extreme poverty. 

As the pandemic rages on in South Asia, reversing years of hard-won development and economic gains, the commitments made in Stockholm might seem less relevant. But, COVID-19 has in fact been a very necessary alarm bell to think consciously about the future of transport and road safety. 

COVID-19 and road safety have a common unfortunate characteristic – they hit the most vulnerable people the hardest.

Woman crossing the street in Hyderabad, India.
Road crash deaths are the ‘silent epidemic’ that kill over a million people every year. Photo - fotosunny / Shutterstock.com

A critical development priority

COVID-19 and road safety have a common unfortunate characteristic – they hit the most vulnerable people the hardest 

Road crashes have a devastating and disproportionate impact on the poor. Serious injuries from road crashes and months of costly rehabilitation can thrust a family into deep poverty.  In Bangladesh, about 70 percent of poor rural families suffering a road death saw their income decrease. Forty-four percent of rural poor victims who sustained serious injuries were unable to return to their job and spent twice as many days searching for a new job than other victims.

Road crashes also have a direct impact on human capital — data shows that road crash deaths and injuries disproportionately affect adults during their prime years of working and raising a family, and rank among the leading causes of long-term disability. Fatalities from road crashes are also a leading cause of death among young adults between the ages of 15 and 29 in South Asia. 

Apart from the enormous human toll, road safety has a major economic impact, with annual crash-related costs estimated at 2 percent to 5 percent of national GDP. Our analysis shows that, for the South Asia eastern subregion, a 50 percent reduction in road deaths would generate an estimated gross benefit of about $1.2 trillion.

Making roads safer will directly support our goals to reduce poverty and to increase shared prosperity.

Road crash injuries take away valuable medical resources, already stretched to the limit by the pandemic.
Road crash injuries take away valuable medical resources, already stretched to the limit by the pandemic. Photo - Talukdar David / Shutterstock.com

Reducing the burden on health care systems

Road crashes also result in a massive number of serious injuries. This takes away medical resources which are already being stretched to the limit by the pandemic.

In 2017, the Indian Ministry of Health indicated that up to 48 percent of hospital beds in surgical wards were occupied by road crash victims. In Bangladesh, on any given day, 30 percent of the country’s 1,169 ICU beds are occupied by crash victims. Yet, during the first COVID-19 peak, some countries required 90 percent of ICU beds to treat COVID-19 patients. Reducing the number of serious traffic injuries that require medical care would greatly relieve the region’s overstretched healthcare systems. 

Evidence from projects such as the Bank-financed Second Tamil Nadu Road Sector Project suggests that trauma equipment bought initially to attend to road crash injuries is contributing to the COVID-19 response in many hospitals. Bangladesh is setting up a system of mobile emergency medical services with dedicated ambulances for crash victims and COVID-19 patients. Establishing an umbrella funds structure for universal coverage and strengthening emergency care services will enhance countries’ preparedness to respond to health crises. 

 

COVID-19 has deeply impacted urban mobility in South Asia, reemphasizing the unsafe conditions for walking and cycling in cities.
COVID-19 has deeply impacted urban mobility in South Asia, reemphasizing the unsafe conditions for walking and cycling in cities. Photo - Arne Hoel/ World Bank

The pandemic provides an opportune time for countries in South Asia to re-think how to revive transportation systems.

Rethinking urban mobility

Conventional wisdom suggests that lockdowns would bring down the number of road deaths and injuries. For example, India registered a 50 percent reduction in crash deaths when travel restrictions were imposed.

However, a closer look at the traffic data reveals that fatality rates per kilometer traveled have increased. Contributing factors could be higher speeds due to lower traffic volumes, lack of rule enforcement, and a larger proportion of pedestrians and motorcyclists who are more vulnerable than other road users. 

This is an opportune time for countries in South Asia to re-think how to revive transportation systems during and after the pandemic , moving away from the car-centric approach to mass transit designs that integrate walking and cycling paths.

I am encouraged to see countries across the region taking proactive policy steps on urban mobility. The Smart City Mission in India recently launched the “India Cycles4Change Challenge” for walking and cycling pilots in 11 cities. Such policy actions will help channel additional resources to build safe and accessible infrastructure for walking and cycling as well as review urban mobility policies.

Road safety and resilient recovery

In a world transformed by the pandemic, working towards a resilient recovery requires utilizing new opportunities to build a more sustainable and inclusive future. Improving road safety will be key to this, helping create pandemic-ready health systems and safer mobility.

We have joined hands with the UN Road Safety Trust Fund, the UN Special Envoy for Road Safety, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, ADB, UK AID, and international philanthropies in a collaborative effort to tackle the road safety challenge.

Now is the time to keep the momentum going on road safety. Together we can save millions of lives and become an inspiring success story for inclusive, sustainable development.

Check out our campaign Together for Road Safety and tune in to watch our World Bank Live event Road Safety in South Asia - Rethinking Urban Mobility amid COVID-19.

Join the Conversation

Sudeshna Mitra
November 10, 2020

Indeed, fatal crashes in India haven't reduced during COVID, and the reduction in total crashes is simply due to reduced exposure, i.e less traffic on roads. As you pointed a large share of fatal crashes comprises vulnerable road users as they walked along roads and highways where there are no sidewalks. Also, a major share of fatal crashes is from transport using unsafe modes, primarily from passenger transport in trucks or goods vehicles, which were used by laborers during the lockdown. These vehicles are not designed to carry passengers, have poor stability, and vehicle safety standards are also rather poor. On top of that on highways, they probably often ply at very high speeds, leading to roll-over type crashes. I was following the road crash related news in Indian media, and it is quite clear that the poor are hard hit by road crash during covid. Ironically, these incidents could have been avoided by providing safer transport options to migrant workers.

Puspa Raj Pant
November 11, 2020

Traffic volume reduced significantly in these South Asian countries where they imposed strict lockdown not allowing public vehicles or private vehicles except those for essential services. Yet deaths and injuries were considerably high. https://f1000research.com/articles/9-1209. Speed and poor condition of vehicles seems to main contributory factor behind these crashes and casualty.

As Hart has indicated for re-thinking transportation (mainly urban), there are report of rapidly increased sales of motorcycles and cars. This will not help in the future: from environmental or safety aspects. Considering the fact that countries will have to report the progress in 2024, there must be some Carrot and Stick approach and WB should take harsh measures for those countries not making progress by 2024. Inactivity should not be an excuse. For example, Nepal has managed to establish so many Covid-19 testing centres and hospitals in short period of time managing limited health human resources. I am sure, it can perform in the same rate if there is a push! thanks