I read with sorrow but no great surprise about the death of yet another outstanding activist in a road crash. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, a renowned pan-Africanist, journalist and campaigner, died in a car crash in Nairobi, Kenya on 25 May – Africa Day. For an obituary and hundreds of affectionate farewells see Pambezuka News.
Tajudeen (pictured), a Nigerian, was a fearsome debater, and a huge character. I remember introducing him to my elderly mother, who had loyally sat in the studio audience of an ‘Any Questions’ radio panel in which Taj duly gave me a rough ride (in my capacity as a representative of aid imperialism). Guffawing heartily, he promptly engulfed her in an enormous embrace – something she has never forgotten.
And now he is gone, along with so many community leaders, aid workers and activists over the years, whose constant movement around the roads of poor countries seems to leave them particularly vulnerable (Tajudeen died while on his way to the airport to catch a flight to Rwanda to meet with the country’s President on the current maternal mortality rate campaign and to Nigeria for a meeting with the MDG Committee of the National Assembly).
Beyond the personal tragedy, there is a wider issue. Road traffic accidents are one of those overlooked sources of death, insecurity and suffering, particularly in poor countries. According to a report by the Campaign for Global Road Safety, road crashes kill at least 1.3 million people each year and injure 50 million, a toll greater than deaths from malaria. Ninety percent of these road casualties are in low and middle income countries (see map). Britain has a fatality rate of one death per 10,000 vehicles; in Ethiopia and Uganda it is over 190. Each year 260,000 children die on the road and another million are seriously injured, often permanently disabled. By 2015 road crashes are predicted by the WHO to be the leading cause of premature death and disability for children aged 5 and above.
At the family level, traffic accidents are a health shock that can tip families into long term poverty as they lose a breadwinner or sell off precious assets to pay hospital fees. Yet initiatives in a number of countries in recent years have shows that the death toll can be swiftly curbed if governments put effort into vehicle maintenance standards and road safety. This is really simple stuff – 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). With a spate of infrastructure spending on roads going on around the world, the Campaign for Global Road Safety is calling for a part of the spending to be set aside to promote public safety.
The UN system is rumbling into action on this. The First Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety meets in Moscow in November, hosted by President Medvedev. For background on numerous national and international road safety initiatives see here. Lets hope it helps stem the carnage.