In the last column, I reflected on the imperative of collaboration to reach the global sustainable development goals. I wanted to continue that line of thought and share with you our recent interview of Nhan Tran, Coordinator Unintentional Injury Prevention at the World Health Organization (WHO), who is working closely with the Swedish Government hosts to arrange the upcoming 3rd Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety, which will take place in Stockholm in February 2020.
In 2009, ministers and other key stakeholders in the international road safety community gathered in Moscow to mobilize around the rising road fatality epidemic – without action, fatalities were estimated to double by the end of the decade. The conference was a game changer in bringing attention to the urgency of the issue and succeeded in devising a multi-dimensional action plan. ‘The decade of action for road safety’ was subsequently declared by the UN general assembly.
2015, marked a halfway point in the decade of action, and the second global ministerial conference was held in Brasilia. Achievements and impacts were tallied. While it could be shown that the predicted rapid rise in fatalities had been partially mitigated, we were emphatically not on track to contain the issue. In the same period, a huge step was taken when road safety was finally fully incorporated into the framework of the global goals for sustainable development, and a target to halve road fatalities between 2010 and 2020 was adopted by the UN.
So now, leading up to the third global meeting how far have we come and what remains to be done in order to ensure that the next decade truly brings safe mobility to everyone? We talked to Nhan Tran of the WHO about the about the challenges involved in making our roads safer.
Why is it difficult to highlight the problem as a global health issue?
“There is no exact ownership of the issue. The health sector is engaged in only some aspects, other sectors are working on infrastructure investments and vehicle standard regulations and so forth. Various segments of society need to come together to contribute, in their own unique way, to improve safety on our roads. But, in many countries, not enough effort is being made to realize this goal.”
Why does road safety not get more attention?
“There are many reasons. One challenge is that national data are not always correct so governments do not always realize the extent to which people are dying on their roads. In some cases, the official statistic is a fifth of what we think the true numbers are. If governments would recognize these facts, I think the response and the level of urgency would change.”
We have seen some reduction in road deaths in middle- and high-income countries. But, most road deaths occur in low-income countries. Why have we not seen any reduction in these areas?
“The main reason is that, in many low-income countries, the level of investment in road safety has not increased, despite the fact that there are more people and vehicles on the roads.”
The target of halving the number of deaths from road traffic accidents by 2020 forms part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda. The target will not be met. Do you think the international community will set a new goal?
“In part, I think the 2020 deadline was to draw attention to the need for urgent and immediate action. The fact that we will not reach the goal is a good wake-up call. In February 2020, there will be a ministerial conference in Sweden and the aim is to bring world leaders together to talk about a way forward, including a proposal for a new target that will be set for 2030.”
The WHO has adopted a set of 12 voluntary performance targets designed to provide guidance on how to improve road safety. What are the main focus areas?
“We have outlined different areas that need to be improved to make roads safer. It is a system approach and the targets address infrastructure, legislation, behavior, vehicle safety standards and so forth. It reinforces the fact that road safety is a question of addressing the system and, if governments implement all the actions, they’ll have implemented a safe systems approach.”
In other words, there are both engineering and behavioral challenges to be overcome?
“Correct. Legislation is good, but you also need enforcement. Then you need infrastructure that is appropriate to what the law says, and all of this demands resources. Many countries have implemented single measures to improve road safety, but to succeed we need a systems approach. People tend to say that road deaths are caused by reckless behavior. But behavior is a function of the system you live in. If we want to change the behavior of our road users, we have to change the system.”
It is reassuring to see that the imperative of road safety is gaining traction. However, as Dr Tran remarks, too many countries lack a system-perspective on road safety, and the resources needed to update infrastructure and institutional systems is largely beyond reach. Still, without resolute action and investments major progress will not materialize. I hope that the new UN Road Safety Fund established in 2018 may help low- and middle-income countries to strengthen their capacity and put in place effective national road safety systems. In parallel, technology providers, such as Volvo Group, need to take action to ensure the deployment and uptake of important safety technology reaches as many as possible.
Safety Director, Volvo Group