What kills more children than Aids? Roads

As a former Nato Secretary-General I am familiar with the cold calculus of potential body counts when assessing threats to national security. But I’m still taken aback by our failure to face one of the gravest, most preventable, risks facing people across the world.

This year about 1.3 million people will die on the world’s roads. About 40 times this number will be seriously injured. The vast majority of these deaths and injuries, some 90 per cent, will occur in developing countries. In most poor countries “death by traffic” is a bigger killer than malaria or tuberculosis. Road accidents kill more children aged between 5 and 14 than malaria or HIV/Aids, and are the biggest killer of 15 to 29-year-olds. Every day road accidents cause a loss of life equivalent to ten jumbo jet crashes. And while road deaths are falling in rich countries, they are spiralling up in the developing world, and will double by 2030 if no action is taken.

The threats associated with roads greatly outweigh those posed by terrorism. Had someone shown me the numbers when I was at Nato, I would have assumed that I was looking at the impact of a high-intensity conflict. And I might have expected campaigns for humanitarian intervention. Yet for the most part, governments and aid agencies turn a blind eye.

The world’s roads appear a matter of peripheral concern — a subject for a convention of civil engineers maybe, far from the global political agenda. Today at the UN in New York, however, there will be a rare departure from the norm. The UN’s member states will have a chance to approve proposals for a Decade of Action for Road Safety.

The Decade of Action is an opportunity to tackle this humanitarian crisis that is destroying lives on a vast scale.

Our neglect rests on two fallacies. The first is that road injuries are the collateral damage of development — an inevitable consequence of more roads and cars. This type of unthinking fatalism costs lives. Tens of thousands of children die each year because transport planners route major highways between their homes, often in informal slums, and their schools. If you want a glimpse of the reality behind the numbers, imagine sending your seven-year-old on a daily journey to school that involves negotiating a six-lane highway. The solution: build overpasses and regulate future road design to avoid human settlements.

The main killers are easy to identify: road designs that fail to separate pedestrians from vehicles, failure to enforce laws on speeding, drink- driving and the wearing of seatbelts and helmets. It’s not rocket science.

The second fallacy is more pernicious. It is an unspoken assumption that rising deaths are an affordable price for national progress. This view combines indefensible ethics with illiterate economics. Global numbers can never capture the grief and suffering behind every fatality and injury statistic — there is no price on human grief. But the wider consequences of neglecting road traffic injury do come with a price tag.

Road crashes cost poor countries between 1 and 3 per cent of GDP a year. Health systems are haemorrhaging resources on a vast scale. In countries such as India, Kenya and South Africa, up to half the beds in high-cost trauma wards are occupied by road traffic victims. The question that finance ministers should ask is not whether road safety is affordable, but whether any country can afford not to act.

If the Decade of Action is approved and we can halve the projected increase in road deaths by 2020, it could save 5 million lives. But that requires governments to show leadership and ambition, for instance, by setting targets to maximise seatbelt and helmet use. International aid donors could support these efforts by backing a $300 million action plan from the Make Roads Safe campaign. Bloomberg Philanthropies has already contributed $125 million towards such an effort.

But it also requires us to reject the business model that ignores avoidable suffering and measures a nation’s progress in kilometres of roads.

George Robertson, Baron Robertson of Port Ellen, chairman of the Commission for Global Road Safety.