Every year, 1.25 million people die in road traffic crashes and up to 50 million more suffer non-fatal injuries. An estimated 3% of gross domestic product is lost worldwide in road crashes, which are the main cause of death of young people aged 15-29 years1. Road traffic injuries have become a leading cause of mortality, and yet most road crashes are largely predictable and preventable.
Over the last fifteen years, road safety has emerged as a significant global public policy issue. In 2004, the WHO and the World Bank published the World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention2 which warned that road traffic injuries “constitute a major public health and development crisis”. In the same year, the UN General Assembly3 invited the WHO to act as the UN’s road safety coordinator, in collaboration with the UN regional commissions and to establish the UN Road Safety Collaboration (UNRSC). This was followed in 2006 by the launch of the Commission for Global Road Safety (see Box 1) under the chairmanship of Lord Robertson of Port Ellen which called for a first ever global ministerial conference on road safety and proposed a ten-year action plan to reverse the rising tide of road injuries4.
The Commission for Global Road Safety – leading a decade of successful advocacy for road injury prevention 2006-2015
The Commission for Global Road Safety was established in 2006 on the initiative of the FIA Foundation under the Chairmanship of Lord Robertson of Port Ellen and the Patronage of His Royal Highness (HRH) Prince Michael of Kent. The Commission’s aim was to raise the political response to the road injury epidemic, by defining an agenda of effective policy action, and ensuring that road safety be fully recognized by the UN as a global issue of sustainable development.
Over the next ten years, the Commission, together with the FIA Foundation and the Make Roads Safe campaign, played a leading role in global road safety advocacy and policy making. In a series of four influential reports5 the Commission successfully called for:
– The first ever global Ministerial Conference on Road safety which was held in Moscow in November 2009.
– A Decade of Action for Road Safety which was launched by the UN in April 2011.
– A Global Plan for Road Injury Prevention based on the Safe System approach which was adopted by the UNRSC in 2011.
– The appointment by the UN Secretary General of a Special Envoy for Road Safety which resulted in the appointment of Jean Todt, President of the FIA, in this role in June 2015.
– The inclusion of road safety in the UN’s post 2015 framework of Sustainable Development Goals which was agreed unanimously by UN member States in September 2015.
With all its major objectives achieved, in November 2015 the Commission’s activities were concluded on the occasion of the 2nd Global High Level Conference on Road Safety held in Brasilia.
The first global ministerial conference on road safety was subsequently held in Moscow 19-20 November 2009. The meeting adopted the Moscow Declaration which supported the call for a Decade of Action6. The following year the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming the Decade of Action for Road Safety (2011-2020)7 which was then officially launched on 11 May 2011 with the goal to “stabilize and then reduce” the predicted increase in road traffic fatalities. This was supported by a Global Plan8 developed by the UNRSC, which provides recommended actions across five key policy pillars areas of road safety management, safer roads and mobility, safer vehicles, safer road users and post-crash response.
Although the Decade of Action represented long overdue recognition of road safety as a major global issue, it was still left out of the UN’s 2000-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This oversight made it harder for road injury prevention to mobilise the political and financial support it clearly deserves. It was, therefore, very significant that road safety was finally included in the new framework of SDGs9 when they were unanimously adopted in by Heads of Government at the Sustainable Development Summit held at the UN in New York in September 2015.
The SDGs establish a set of goals and targets to be implemented by 2030 and which are “universally applicable” to all 193 UN Member States. Road safety is included in Goal 3 for Health with a target (3.6) which aims, by 2020, to halve the number of global traffic deaths and injuries. It also appears as part of Goal 11 for Cities with a target (11.2) which, by 2030, calls for “access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons”. Finally, Goal 8 for Growth & Employment includes a call for safe working environments (8.8) which is relevant to occupational road safety.
The ambition to halve road traffic deaths and injuries by 2020 is significantly stronger than the original aim of the UN Decade of Action which was just “to stabilize and then reduce” road traffic fatalities (see Box 2). The new health target is, therefore, the UN’s strongest ever commitment to road injury prevention. The aim to halve road deaths is also closely aligned with some other existing Decade of Action targets, such as those set by the African Union10, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)11 and the European Union (EU)12 and has also been endorsed by the 2nd Global High Level Conference on Road Safety held in Brasilia on 18-19 November 201513 and by the UN General Assembly14 on15 April 2016. So now there is the clearest possible mandate for action by all Member States to reinvigorate their national road safety policies and laws.
Although no country is untouched by the problem of road traffic deaths and injuries, low-income countries have fatality rates more than double those in high-income countries, and account for a disproportionate number of deaths relative to their level of motorization. The African region has the highest rate fatalities per 100,000 population and Europe the lowest (see Box 3). The stark reality is that to achieve the SDG target will require all country income groups to make the following dramatic improvements in their fatality rates by the end of the UN Decade of Action15:
– High Income Countries: from 8.7 per deaths per 100,000 in 2010 to 4 by 2020;
– Middle Income Countries: from 20.1 per deaths per 100,000 in 2010 to 7 by 2020;
– Low Income Countries: from 18.3 per deaths per 100,000 in 2010 to 12 by 2020.
The WHO’s Global Status Report on Road Safety published in October 201516 showed that the level of road deaths has remained broadly constant since 2007 despite rising levels of population and motorisation. While global traffic fatalities have been fairly stable, a number of countries – predominantly high-income countries – were able to achieve record breaking year on year reductions. Much of this success is the result of improved legislation, enforcement, and making roads and vehicles safer.
Nevertheless, the Global Status Report revealed that worldwide 68 countries experienced an increase in road fatalities and recently there has also been a worrying slowdown and even reversal of the positive performance achieved by some high income countries17. Some of this can be attributed to recovery from the 2007/8 financial crisis. Reduced levels of economic activity and disposable income slowed traffic volumes lowering ‘exposure’ to injury risk particularly of young people19. With levels of traffic rising again, it is unfortunately not unexpected that the positive results achieved in high income countries have slowed or even been reversed.
There is also concern that the deterioration in performance has been exacerbated by evidence in some countries that fiscal constraints have reduced police enforcement against speeding, drink driving, and distracted driving. This issue has been raised, for example, in the UK by the House of Commons by Members of Parliament on its Transport Select Committee20. Whatever the underlying economic factors, the reverse of many years of sustained progress in high income countries is deeply disquieting and only reinforces the case for stronger action to restore the previous positive trends.
With just three years remaining for the UN Decade of Action, all countries, regardless of their income level, face a significant challenge to halve their level of road deaths and serious injuries. Nevertheless, this pledge was accepted universally by all UN Member States and remains a very significant commitment to action. Parliamentarians worldwide now have the opportunity and responsibility to adopt policy, legislation and budgets that will secure lasting reductions of death and injury on the world’s roads. Urgent action is needed now because, on present trends, it is unlikely that the UN SDG target will be reached. If this happens, it will represent a tragic missed opportunity and a failure to apply known and effective policies to make roads safe.