Greater political will needed to help reduce road deaths, support Bloomberg Philanthropies work

Street traffic in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by: Silver Blue / CC BY-SA

NEW YORK — Greater political will is needed to reach the goal of halving road traffic deaths and injuries by 2020 and meeting one of the Sustainable Development Goals targets, according to experts at Bloomberg Philanthropies and Vital Strategies.

Bloomberg Philanthropies has invested $259 million over the last decade to reduce road traffic accidents, which claim 1.3 million lives each year and cause 50 million injuries. But much of the onus still rests with cities, many of which have traditionally lacked strong data and policies to create safer road environments.

“It is really about the [political] will to reduce fatalities. It is cost-effective to save lives by implementing these interventions,” said Kelly Larson, who heads Bloomberg Philanthropies’ work on road safety.

“The fact is this [road traffic accidents] is the eighth leading cause of death globally, and it really does not get the attention that it needs. I think in some instances people feel like it is fate, like there is nothing they can do, but really there are things we know we can do.”

Increasing helmet and seat belt use and reducing drinking and driving are all key ways to help save lives.

UN launches new fund on road safety, as deaths continue to climb

Without intervention and investment, the Sustainable Development Goal of halving road traffic deaths will remain out of reach, U.N. experts warn.

“But in order to do that you need to have police enforcement and strong communications to people, to understand the consequences of their behavior,” Larson continued.  

Larson spoke on the sidelines of a partners meeting on road safety in New York City’s Bloomberg headquarters on Wednesday. Experts from partnering cities — including Bangkok, Shanghai, Bogotá, and Accra — turned out to share lessons from their work in making roads safer for civilians.

Road traffic deaths have increased over the last decade and almost all the fatal accidents take place in low- and middle-income countries, according to United Nations estimates. A new U.N. fund on road safety, launched in April, is one example of how the issue is gaining more traction.

Bloomberg-backed efforts to strengthen data systems, policies, and police enforcement from 2008-2014 have prevented 125,000 deaths, but progress still varies across cities. Over the last four years, the prevalence of helmet wearing in Bogotá, for example, increased from 89 to 93 percent, while it rose 1 to 11 percent in Shanghai during this time period, according to the Johns Hopkins International Injury Research Unit.

Trends tend to be worse when it comes to protection for children in vehicles. In Accra, the prevalence of child restraints in vehicles rose from 5 to 10 percent; in Mumbai, it rose from 3 to 5 percent.

“We have a lot more work to do to protect children in vehicles,” Abdul Bachani, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, said during the day-long event.

Data collection is another ongoing challenge. Accra’s mayor, Mohammed Adjei Sowah, explained that the city still sometimes lacks specific data on where particular accidents occur, for example, making it hard to determine where traffic enforcement should be more focused.

There are also often gaps with data on drinking and driving according to Sara Whitehead, a specialist on outcome data and surveillance systems at Vital Strategies.

“More likely than not we do not have alcohol data available. We want to know where the crashes are, where are the most serious crashes, where are the most serious pedestrian crashes,” she told Devex.

While the initial Bloomberg Philanthropies road safety program wraps at the end of next year, much of the new funding and work on road safety at the city level has come from governments themselves, according to Whitehead.

Continued improvement will require more political attention and investment to prevent road traffic accidents from becoming the eighth largest killer worldwide by 2030.

“In a lot of places, road crashes are not a top priority. Cities are dealing with the whole spectrum of crime, and in some cases there are not specific road policing units … Building the advocacy is part of the process of getting people to the table with interest,” she said.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.

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