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Buckle Your Seat Belt, the UN Says, and Save Millions of Lives



Street scene in Dakar
Sometimes, a road hazard can involve four-legged creatures, as here in Dakar, Senegal. JOE PENNEY

Not many people can honestly say they have heard of the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims, but at the United Nations road safety is one more topic on its long, long agenda. When the day was created in 2005, road injuries were a major public health concern. They still are today, with traffic accident injuries set to become the fifth-leading cause of death by 2030 unless more prevention and other steps are taken.

The remembrance is every third Sunday in November, so it fell on the 18th this year, and Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general, noted increasing road safety progress worldwide. He praised, for instance, the installation of seat belts on buses in Chile; the criminalization of drunk driving in China; stricter control of alcohol sales to young drivers in New Zealand; and better enforcement of safety legislation in Brazil.

Back in 2009, the World Health Organization’s Global Status Report on Road Safety spurred even more action by the General Assembly, which passed the resolution recognizing the remembrance for road traffic victims four years earlier. The report, considered groundbreaking in what it laid out globally, found that road accidents kill 1.3 million people annually and injure another 20 to 50 million people, with 90 percent of accidents occurring in low- and middle-income countries.

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Most of the victims are pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists. Road accidents add up to especially large costs in developing countries, where governments spend more than $100 billion a year in related expenses, sometimes more than the overseas development assistance they receive.

In response, the General Assembly adopted another resolution, introducing the Decade of Action for Road Safety in 2011 in 100 countries, a “collective road map.” The plan was coordinated with governments by the WHO’s UN Road Safety Collaboration, which included such partners as the World Bank. The bank’s involvement is important, as it spends 10 percent of its portfolio on building roads. The goal is to get nations and others, like the corporate world, to develop road safety mechanisms to save five million lives by 2020.

These efforts also focus on improving emergency services and building up road safety management. The global plan calls for more legislation and enforcement on using helmets, seat belts and child restraints as well as avoiding drinking and driving and speeding. National plans are expected to follow suit — with Australia, Mexico and the Philippines, for example, already doing so.

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The WHO remains the arbiter of worldwide road safety and is producing another global status report on the subject by early 2013, providing a statistical analysis of changes in traffic incidents in more than 180 countries. A second road safety week is planned for May 6-12, 2013, while other projects include the Bloomberg Philanthropies Global Road Safety Program, which has allotted $125 million to work with partner groups to improve road conditions, and the Multilateral Development Bank’s Road Safety Initiative, which coordinates bank donations with road safety initiatives in developing countries.

Egypt has one of the highest road-traffic crash rates in the world — its population is about 75 million — reporting about 42 deaths per 100,000 population in 2009. It is revising its national plan to be more proactive, improving road engineering and design, pushing the use of seat belts, regulating auto safety standards and establishing nationwide rules for driving schools, among a full list of goals. If it carries the goals out, Egypt could very well drop from its high perch on road-accident death tallies.



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Alice Volkov has a master’s degree from the Graduate School of International Affairs at Australian National University in Canberra. She wrote her thesis on the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and the intervention in Libya in 2011. Recently, she was an intern with the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center in New Delhi. Her areas of interest also include strategies for preventing mass atrocity crimes; international development practices relating to the governance sector; and criminal justice reform. Volkov received a bachelor’s degree, with honors, in history from the University of Melbourne.

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