Urban Transformation

Road crash deaths and injuries in the world's cities can be stopped. Here's how

busy road scene in a city with buses, motorcycles and pedestrians

Road crashes are the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5-29. Image: Photo by Steven Lewis on Unsplash

Jean Todt
UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Road Safety, United Nations
Olga Algayerova
Undersecretary-General of the United Nations; Executive Secretary, , United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)
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SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

  • 1.35 million people die each year and 50 million people are seriously injured in road crashes, that’s more than AIDS and malaria combined.
  • Road crashes are the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5-29.
  • 93% of road fatalities are in low- and middle- income countries.
  • Road deaths and injuries cost developing countries between 3% and 5% of GDP, jeopardizing their development prospects. The Sustainable Development Goals contain two targets specifically on safe and sustainable mobility, in goals relating to health (SDG3) and sustainable cities and communities (SDG11).

An estimated 42% of the 105,000 road traffic deaths recorded annually in the 56 countries of the UNECE region occur in built-up areas (2017 figures).

At the global level, urban areas will grow by more than 50% over the coming 30 years, with the majority of this expansion occurring in Africa and Asia. This underlines the need to actively address road safety in cities everywhere.

Humans make mistakes, but we cannot wait for autonomous cars to fix them.

We often hear statistics about many road crashes being due to human error, but this can be misleading. At the staggering scale witnessed today, road crashes are not simply “accidents”. They are the result of a systematic failure to sufficiently value safety as part of mobility. Rather than pass out blame, we must focus efforts on reducing the likelihood of crashes – by building safe infrastructure, safe vehicles, and other key steps – and limiting the severity of the consequences when they do occur.

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In the developed world, autonomous cars offer some hope in the medium to long term, supported by rapid technological advances and the required international regulatory frameworks, but they still face many challenges to widespread deployment. In developing countries, where the majority of the needed infrastructure does not exist, waiting for their benefits to materialize cannot be an excuse for inaction now.

Top tips to improve road safety, especially in low- and middle-income countries

Complementing actions at the national level, such as acceding to and implementing the UN conventions for road safety, reinforcing national policies and capacity building, prioritizing green and active mobility and investing in road safety, cities have a critical role to play. Here are some top tips:

1. Develop sustainable urban mobility plans

Cities need to promote a consistent set of mobility interventions, keeping sight of the needs of commuters and all categories of citizens. Sustainable urban mobility plans, designed in consultation with local communities, can create a framework where the different modes of transport, including public transport, motorized and non-motorized transport, coexist and complement each other to create safe mobility options for all. Integrating gender equality and affordability considerations in all related policy making is a key dimension.

2. Develop cycling and walking

Invest in cycling and walking infrastructure to create safe, efficient, and low-carbon mobility in cities. Ministers from over 40 countries took an important step in this direction this week by adopting the first pan-European Master Plan for Cycling Promotion. Doubling the current level of cycling would prevent 30,000 premature deaths (primarily from increased physical activity) with indirect economic benefits amounting to €78 billion per year.

3. Inclusively design streets to protect the most vulnerable

More than 50% of roads lack basic infrastructure for the safe movement of pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, and vehicle occupants. Improving the 10% highest-risk roads in each country over 20 years, through the implementation of footpaths, safety barriers, bicycle lanes and paved shoulders, has the potential to prevent around 3.6 million deaths and 40 million serious injuries. Optimizing the cohabitation of road users and putting the human at the centre of city design policies should be the norm.

4. Build capacity for road safety

Train enforcers and equip them to ensure laws are effectively respected. Ensure safe school surroundings by adding crossing monitors at crucial locations, safe crossings, and reducing speeds. Revise drivers licensing procedures for professional and non-professional drivers so that they are adequately prepared behind the wheel.

5. Provide safety equipment for the most vulnerable

Motorcycle helmets reduce the risk of fatal head injuries by about 60%. Child restraint systems reduce the risk of fatalities by 40%, the risk of severe injury by 35% and the risk of minor injuries by 20%.

6. Develop post-crash protocols and services

To ensure citizens know which emergency services to call after a crash, and that the services can get there quickly.

7. Improve data

Collecting and analysing high-quality data and statistics are essential for road safety management. Use technology to identify and track traffic crashes and causes and ensure continual management, monitoring and improvement.

8. Raise awareness on urban public space use

Awareness-raising campaigns can play an important role in educating citizens on safe and sustainable mobility and the different uses of the public space.

9. Be part of a city network

To exchange Road Safety best practices and share data.

Road crashes are not simply “accidents”. They are the result of a systematic failure to sufficiently value safety as part of mobility.

Distribution of deaths by road user type, by WHO Region
Distribution of deaths by road user type, by WHO Region Image: GLOBAL STATUS REPORT ON ROAD SAFETY 2018, World Health Organization

Lessons from COVID-19

Although lockdowns halted the daily movements of millions of people, shifts to walking and cycling received a boost in many cities, from New York to Paris, Milan and Brussels, including through the establishment of “pop-up” cycle lanes. Many cities are now moving to make these permanent. In Addis Ababa, the UN Road Safety Fund provided technical review to the design of a temporary bicycle lane during the pandemic, contributing to a 7.5-factor increase in cycling on this corridor.

Teleworking has advanced over the last year more than it would have in a decade without the pandemic. It prompts us to reconsider in the longer term our mobility patterns to reduce the numbers of in-person meetings and non-essential travel.

UN Road Safety Week

The UN Global Road Safety Week takes place every two years to bring attention to road traffic crashes.

This 6th UN Global Road Safety Week advocates for “Streets for Life” with the #Love30 campaign to make 30 km/h (20 mph) speed limits the norm for cities worldwide in places where people mix with traffic. Speed contributes to about 30% of deaths on the road while in some low-and middle-income countries, speed is estimated to be the main contributory factor in about 50% of all road crashes.

Global action

The Week also launches the second Decade of Action for Road Safety 2021-2030, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly with the goal to halve the number of the victims by 2030. A Global Plan of Action on Road Safety is currently being finalized. It recognizes the important role of scaling up financing, through instruments such as the UN Road Safety Fund.

Poor road safety causes more deaths than malaria and AIDS combined, yet it has received only a fraction of the investment. A High-Level Meeting on Road Safety in 2022 will be the occasion to mobilize political and financial commitments at the level needed.

Governments and cities are not the only ones with a role to play: the private sector also stands to benefit from the enhanced business opportunities stemming from safer and more efficient transport networks and healthy populations. Each and every one of us needs to face up to our responsibilities. Let’s all play our part in making the streets of the world a safer place.

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