Are crazy drivers as big a development issue as malaria or tuberculosis? The case for a global road safety campaign

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 road safety 1campaign 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.

road safety 2The 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

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2 Responses to “Are crazy drivers as big a development issue as malaria or tuberculosis? The case for a global road safety campaign”
  1. Robin Stafford

    And thats before considering the impact that the lack of transport has on health and livelihoods, to take just two area. Little point in providing drugs if you cannot deliver them regularly, reliably and safely to people. How many pregnant women die because they just cannot get to a source of help. And what proportion of people in hospitals in say Africa are there because of road accidents…

    Similar issues apply to livelihoods – great that people might have ‘access’ to markets via their mobile phones but not much use if they cannot physically get access to those markets!

    As Duncan points out, this seems to have passed unnoticed by much of the development sector though there are a few organisations working in this space – see The World Bank has a substantial budget for transport though in practice this is primarily about construction and enabling trade, rather than the provision of transport as such.

    I’d suggest that the answers are a little more complex than those that Duncan suggests. Another place to start would be for all those aid agencies and development organisations working in Africa and elsewhere to think about transport as a cross-cutting issues rather than just buying stop buying yet another fleet of white LandCruisers!


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