All road deaths are preventable. We can make it happen

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Two-wheelers and pedestrians in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo: Daniel Silva Yoshisato/World Bank.
Two-wheelers and pedestrians in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo: Daniel Silva Yoshisato/World Bank.

Road crashes kill 1.35 million people and injure 50 million more worldwide every year, more than malaria and AIDS combined. It is also major cause of disability, but remains a mostly invisible epidemic, where the general public and governments either do not give it the needed importance or assume that little can be done about it. With over 93 percent of deaths occurring in developing countries, it is also one of the biggest obstacles for global development and the fight against poverty. According to some sources, anywhere between 12 and 70 million people are kept in poverty per year due to road traffic fatalities and injuries.

Road safety is perhaps the only major development challenge with solutions that are relatively well-known and potentially 100 percent effective. So as countries gather in Stockholm this week for the 3rd Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety, the question is: why are 3,700 people still dying every day on the road?

The reasons are many, and sadly the same as in the start of the decade. Lowering speed limits or increasing enforcement can be unpopular, making politicians hesitant to propose them. Governments often prioritize lower-impact interventions such as public awareness campaigns over investments and policies that actually make crashes less lethal. The low institutional capacity and lack of comprehensive data of many countries make the planning, implementation and monitoring of interventions all but impossible.

But almost all the obstacles to faster progress in road safety have one thing in common: a lack of adequate and timely funding and investments by the governments. It is estimated that tens of billions of dollars are needed per year to fully address the issue. In contrast, the three main international donor bodies dedicated to road safety disburse less than $50 million per year. Achieving a realistic and comprehensive framework for long-term funding of road safety at the global, regional, national and local levels would represent a momentous breakthrough in Stockholm.

Globally, there is a limited pool of financial resources which can assist road safety capacity building and intervention programs. These include the Global Road Safety Facility (GRSF), United Nations Road Safety Trust Fund, and Global Road Safety Partnership. Regional sources include the Africa Transport Policy Program (SSATP), as well as dedicated funding from Regional Development Banks. Global advocacy and leadership deeply matter as well, with organizations like the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile leading the call for action. But although these actors play a key role in coordinating efforts and showcasing good practices, international institutions can never fill the investment gap that requires active support from governments at the country and local levels.

A highway running through Accra, Ghana.
A highway running through Accra, Ghana. Photo: Daniel Silva Yoshisato, World Bank.

Finance ministries and other purse-string holders in many low- and middle-income countries still greatly under-appreciate the scale of the problem and its impacts on the social and economic future of their countries. Besides the great pain and suffering inflicted on individuals and communities, road crashes represent a huge financial burden on economies. In low- and middle-income countries alone, GRSF estimates that road death and serious injuries cost economies $1.7 trillion dollars per year, and over 6.5 percent of GDP. Recent World Bank research shows that, in some countries, halving road traffic deaths and injuries over a 24-year period can result in up to 22 percent increase in GDP per capita.

Sensitizing decision-makers at the national and local levels about the development toll inflicted by road traffic deaths and injuries is only the first step. To compete for scarce funding, road agencies need to develop strong investment cases for national and sub-national programs that can deliver clear economic benefits. This requires tailored assessments that tap sources as appropriate, from general government budget allocations, to levies, public and private insurance as well as revenue from fines. On the private sector side, strong project or concession requirements on safety performance, based on effective assessments that cover road safety issues upfront, can bring in significant resources.

It is vital that countries identify and secure long-term sustainable funding for road safety, but this is not an easy task, especially where capacity and resources are low. The World Bank and GRSF are assisting countries to identify sources and to leverage funding investment. For example, a GRSF safety assessment of the Tulu Dimtu–Kality Interchange Road in Ethiopia led to a road rehabilitation project totaling US$17.5 million in government investment, a leveraging ratio of over US$80 per dollar.

All road deaths are preventable, and the way to achieve it is not a secret. It is therefore a moral imperative to halt this global epidemic. One of the most important steps is to address the funding shortfall as we move beyond the 2020 targets and tackle a new 2030 global road safety agenda.