Can COVID-19 teach us something for the road safety epidemic?

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View over the main thoroughfare in Bissau, Guinea Bissau. Photo: Arne Hoel/World Bank
View over the main thoroughfare in Bissau, Guinea Bissau. Photo: Arne Hoel/World Bank

As the world struggles through the tragic COVID-19 pandemic, it may be also worth considering another health crisis, which has been silently going on for decades. COVID-19 and road crashes wreak suffering, loss, death, grief, and economic hardship. COVID-19 has already killed 119,000 with more to come especially as the pandemic hits low- and middle-income countries with low capacity to manage the crisis. Road crashes kill 1.35 million people and injure up to another 50 million people each year.

Various comparisons between COVID-19 and road crash deaths are being made, some suggesting that the scale of the road safety problem puts the seriousness of the COVID-19 crisis in perspective. Rather than comparing the extent of suffering and death wrought by these two horrific causes, there may be broader lessons we can learn to save many lives and much future suffering. Six such lessons for consideration after COVID-19 is gone, for the future of transport, work, and cities are suggested here.

1. Reducing exposure to road transport. While lockdowns have had enormous economic and social impacts, the benefits of reduced transport identified during lockdowns are profound and go beyond valuable decreases in road crash deaths and disabling injuries. These impacts on transport bring into sharp focus the value of exposure reduction as an intervention for road safety. Up to now, exposure reduction has been largely overlooked because road safety has been too narrowly focused on the road transport system itself. Moreover, reducing motorized private road transport brings a host of other benefits: less green-house gas emissions as well as noise and air pollution, greater opportunities for active transport, greater social inclusion and connection. We should seize on the future opportunities to capture these benefits as we re-think cities, mass transit options such as metros, water transport, and dedicated bus rapid transit systems in the aftermath of the pandemic.

2. Re-envisioning our working lives, transport and infrastructure. Many roles cannot be done from home. Nonetheless, creative adjustment has allowed many more of us to do so, from online classes in schools and universities to consultations with doctors, and many office jobs. In many cases working from home proved to be more effective than expected, presenting an opportunity to re-think the way our societies operate, with benefits that go beyond working from home. There are vital psychological aspects to this. Lengthy home-based work is possible now in part because of relationships we have built prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly through face-to-face meetings. However, face-to-face meetings do not require being in the office five days a week. It is possible to envision a world in which people physically go to work two days a week and concentrate face-to-face meetings into those days.  We may even improve our use of non-verbal cues in electronic communications to strengthen empathy and bonds of trust in distance communications.

This could open opportunities for extraordinary re-design of our work and cities: Perhaps whole buildings could be ‘Hot Buildings’ instead of just a few hot desks. Companies could share office buildings, with selective security on intellectual and other property. Education could permanently become a greater mix of online and in-person experience, acknowledging that the latter will be essential for many aspects of education. The already developing move to online retail may accelerate.

All of this would impact transport deeply. Reducing the need for commuting and other travel may allow stronger incentives (or even regulation) to boost mass transit. Public transport would have less trips to manage and incentivize, though there would still be costs. Without such policy interventions, the share of commuters using private motorized transport may increase because of less traffic and congestion. To manage this, public space may be redesigned to reduce road space and allow its repurposing for more active modes of transport and separating micro-mobility for safety. Less commuting days may also change proximity to work as a factor residential real estate values more accessible, facilitating a broader array of lifestyles. Future family dynamics may evolve with more parenting at home. (There may be downsides to manage: domestic violence has increased with COVID-19.)

3. Maintaining our values. Failure to act powerfully on the road safety crisis which results in so many deaths does not warrant a lack of effort to save lives in the COVID-19, or any other, crisis. These arguments entice us away from the core values we might well strive to maintain, critically including the value of human life. In any potential crisis – whether it be COVID-19, road crashes, or lifestyle diseases, one death is one too many.

4. Embracing system accountability instead of touting individual responsibility. As a society we will be well served by appreciating that the numbers of people dying from crashes or COVID-19 are both largely determined by political decisions, and the blaming of individuals. This has been a common response to both COVID-19 and road crash deaths. Prior to lockdown orders, adopting social distancing measures has been left to individual responsibility. Similarly, in many cases politicians have transferred accountability for crash deaths by claiming that they simply result from people being irresponsible. Reliance on individual responsibility has been shown repeatedly to fail us, including for road safety and COVID-19. We are all imperfect - we all sometimes misjudge risk, make mistakes, and in various circumstances focus on our immediate desires instead of the broader good. Thus, we speed, take other risks, or we simply make mistakes. It may only take a momentary lapse of concentration to cause a fatal crash. As social beings who like to be with our friends, it may only take one inadvertent slip of social distancing or one visit with an asymptomatic friend to spread COVID-19. The victims may be entirely innocent: being hit by a driver who is speeding, or living with a person who has not followed social distancing.

Individual responsibility can help, but our collective health should not rely on every imperfect human knowing what to do, wanting to do it, and succeeding in doing it without error. Politicians can fix these situations, on the one hand with safer roads—including crash barriers, safer vehicles, and safer speeds—which reduce the results of human error from death to property damage, and on the other hand effectively enforcing lockdowns which greatly reduce infection rates and managing the risk of deaths from health systems overrun by COVID-19 cases.

5. Addressing the political dimension. Road safety has traditionally lacked political salience. We must learn from the effective community pressure applied for stronger public policies on COVID-19, including stronger advocacy for economic benefits. Road safety may gain from strongly holding politicians to account for road crash deaths, instead of our currently pervasive victim-blaming. In both crises, arguments for not locking down or for high road travel speeds have been naïvely based on lack of evidence. The COVID-19 experience has shown how disastrous this is. Analyses identifying the economic cost of pandemics and the economic value of lockdowns have received prominent mainstream, expert, and social media support. Similar analyses of the economic costs of road crash deaths and injuries, the economic costs of higher speeds, and the net economic benefits of lower speeds, have received much less attention. Scientific inquiry and advice on road safety are too often marginalized and the problem taken as intractable. For COVID-19, expert advice has been heeded, albeit too slowly in some cases, with trillions of dollars committed to the cause and supporting economies through the crisis. One difference which may facilitate the influence of science for COVID-19 is that it is an infectious disease, a class of problems on which we are in the habit of accepting scientific medical advice.

6. Developing stronger deterrence of lockdown breaches. Finally, the COVID-19 response also has something to learn from the road safety epidemic. Management of more effective lockdowns that minimize detection avoidance and maximize deterrence of social gatherings may draw lessons from successful cases in which road crashes were reduced by well-publicized, rigorous enforcement. Well-researched communications and enforcement not only transform behaviors but also enhance social norms. Social pressure may also help: Those not following lockdowns are extending the ordeal period for everyone, just as speeding adds risk for surrounding road users.

 

The current dramatic experience with COVID-19 provides guidance on re-design of our work and cities as well as generating revamped government accountability for health externalities caused by traffic, particularly road crashes and fatalities. Along with all the suffering, loss, and upheaval of COVID-19, we have the opportunity to evolve.

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