Opinion: The path out of poverty requires investment in road safety

A view of a street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo by: Philip Brookes / CC BY-NC-ND

A new United Nations Road Safety Trust Fund announced last week offers the international community a chance to address the lack of resources that has undermined efforts to end road deaths.

During my time as secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, I was very conscious of the horrific scale and legacy of the theatre of war which defined the last century. What has shocked me since, is that if present trends continue this century, twice as many people will die on roads than the armed conflicts that ravaged the 20th century. Everyone understands war and its outcomes, but the rising death toll on the world’s roads, go by almost unnoticed.

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.

Over 1.2 million people are killed and a further 50 million are injured every year on the world’s roads — 90 percent of which live in developing countries. And those in poverty are not only more likely to be injured or killed but also more likely to be forced further into poverty because of injury. The loss of an adult breadwinner, or a parent forced out of work to care for a severely injured partner or child, can have a devastating impact on the life chances of entire families.

“Everyone understands war and its outcomes, but the rising death toll on the world’s roads, go by almost unnoticed.”

Beyond the individual tragedies, the economic burden of road traffic injuries around the world reaches between 3-5 percent of gross domestic product. A recent World Bank report identified that countries not investing in road safety could miss out on up to 22 percent in potential per capita GDP growth over a 24-year period. Yet we know that investing in preventative road safety pays for itself many times over.

As the world’s leading killer of young people between the ages of 10-24, death and violent injury on our roads has consistently been overlooked as a development priority. The Sustainable Development Goals stand-alone target to halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic crashes was a fantastic step forward. Without political focus and, crucially, unprecedented financing we are destined to fall short of these targets and fail the legacy of the hundreds of millions of people already affected by violence on the roads.

The great tragedy is that we already have the tools to end this appalling daily carnage. We know the systems and policies which work to create safe roads and streets.

There has been some progress as different countries embrace elements — but not the whole scope — of road safety measures. In Vietnam, following the introduction of mandatory helmet use, 500,000 head injuries and 15,000 fatalities have been averted, saving an estimated $3.5 billion in medical costs and lost output. Through Bloomberg Philanthropies’ support for global road safety since 2011, an estimated number of over 1.8 billion people have been covered by strengthened road safety laws and 65 million people have seen new media campaigns promoting road safety.

Those countries with the political will to allocate resources, implement legislation, and sustain efforts to achieve their targets have reaped the humanitarian and financial rewards. But behind every success story are two common denominators: Political will and funding. It is estimated that governments will need to spend at least $260 billion if they are to halve road fatalities over the next decade, yet current in-country spending falls desperately short of this figure.

The new U.N. fund provides an opportunity to galvanize and coordinate the cross-sector investment which is urgently needed to combat this public health epidemic. Donations to the fund can help unlock new government and municipal funding, catalyzing road safety action across the globe, and refocus national road safety budgets toward proven safe system interventions. For every $100 million invested in the fund an estimated $3.4 billion of in-country investment will be leveraged for infrastructure and road safety programs. That would save 64,000 lives and prevent 640,000 serious injuries.

The FIA Foundation is proud to provide the first major pledge to the fund. But our contribution is a drop in the ocean. To meet the Sustainable Development Goal targets for road safety by 2030, the fund will require at least $770 million per year in catalytic financing. The stakes are high and the challenge is great, but now is the moment for development partners to come together and scale up global efforts to address the road safety situation, building on the progress that has already been made.

If successful in its aim, the fund could help to save 5 million lives and prevent 50 million serious injuries over the next decade. But only through scaling up resources can we achieve these ambitions. There has never been a stronger international mandate for action on road safety. We must not let this opportunity go to waste.

It is time to ask ourselves not if we can afford to invest in road safety, but how we can possibly afford to not.

Update, April 24, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify the name of the FIA Foundation.

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About the author

  • Lord robertson headshot 1

    Lord Robertson

    Lord Robertson is chairman of the FIA Foundation, a member of the UK House of Lords, and former secretary general of NATO.