This was clearly meant to be. A couple of weeks ago, I was blearily discussing road traffic accidents with a couple of colleagues as we headed in a taxi to get an early morning flight home from the post-2015 discussion in Cairo, when the car went into a horrendous screeching skid, avoiding the car in front by inches. Andy Sumner, in the passenger seat, said it felt like being inside a rather scary computer game. When theory and practice collide like that, it’s time to start blogging.
Is traffic a development issue? You bet. Firstly, it’s a killer. According to Make Roads Safe, the impressive (but not well-known) global campaign for road safety, somewhere in the world, a person dies every 6 seconds – 1.3 million road deaths each year, a fatality rate comparable to Malaria or Tuberculosis. Nine in ten road deaths and injuries are in developing countries. The economic cost to these countries is estimated by the World Bank at up to US$100 billion a year (equivalent to all annual overseas aid from OECD countries).
Research in India and Bangladesh has shown that at least half of families affected by a road death or serious injury fall below the poverty line. The poorest communities are the worst affected, in rich countries and developing countries alike. Pedestrians, cyclists and other vulnerable road users are the majority of those killed and injured.
It’s also a problem with ready-made solutions – no new vaccines to invent, or new technologies to develop. Just speed limits, enforcement, safety standards both for pedestrians and in public or private transport, traffic (and driver) calming measures, changing public norms on things like drinking and driving. And it doesn’t have to be expensive: when researchers put signs in Kenyan minibuses (matatus) urging passengers to criticize reckless driving, injuries and deaths fell by a half (for paper see here).
True, RTAs may take more lives among better off people (including not a few aid and NGO workers) than infectious disease, and so tackling the issue may not be so ‘pro-poor’, but that at least means you have a ready-made constituency with a powerful political voice.
As countries grow richer, they will probably embark on sorting out traffic safety anyway, but meanwhile, millions of people in developing countries are dying or being injured unnecessarily. A bit of public campaigning could speed things up and save a lot of suffering.
The carnage on the developing world’s roads is just one of a number of issues that people in rich countries tend not to think of as ‘development issues’. Tobacco (annual global death toll estimated at 6 million), alcohol (2.5 million), obesity (2.8 million), diabetes, heart disease, cancer, respiratory problems from household smoke (1.6 million) and pollution, depression and other mental illness. The focus on infectious diseases is important, but an awful lot gets left out, some of it relatively simple to tackle.
2011 marks the start of a UN decade of action on road safety. Here’s a 5 minute video that explains what it’s all about, presented by none other than my predecessor at Oxfam, Kevin Watkins