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     Volume 8 Issue 74 | June 19, 2009 |

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Special Feature

Turning the Tide

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

“Roads are for Life
Roads should not Kill.
So why do we see death and decay
Along the road on our way…”
Translated from Road Safety song (CRP)

On June 1, Air France Flight 448 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all passengers on board. The tragic incident claimed 228 lives -- roughly the same as the number of deaths that occur on Bangladesh's roads in any given week.

Roads are vital arteries indispensable for social and economic development. But as population and commerce outpace transport infrastructure, our roads -- devoid of proper safety measures -- are turning into death traps. Road traffic crashes are like the constant drip-drip of blood hemorrhaging from the body.

Almost unnoticed, the problem has assumed epidemic proportions. Bangladesh has one of the worst Crash Rates in the world more than 100 deaths per 10,000 registered vehicles (WB/UNESCAP). Although the official figure for road deaths is three to four thousand a year, independent studies by international agencies such as the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) have suggested the actual death toll in Bangladesh could be three times as high. The number of people seriously injured in road crashes is estimated at more than 1,00,000 each year. Around the world, 1.3 million people are killed in road accidents annually, 3500 lives lost per day. As many as 50 million are injured and suffer disability every year. Road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death globally for those between 10 and 24 years of age.

--David Ward, Director General, FIA Foundation

Such a global scourge requires a global solution, and the UN Road Safety Collaboration attempts to bring together governments, nongovernmental organisations, donor, research agencies, and private sector representatives from the transport, health, and safety sectors to provide just that kind of multi-sectorial thrust. Started in 2004, the Collaboration has more than 42 international partners and has played a key role in coordinating the fight back against road death. Important contributions in the past five years include development of a range of advocacy and technical tools including good practice guides that address risk factors (such as drunk-driving, helmet use, speeding, seat-belts, etc), global and regional advocacy efforts, and the establishment of an annual World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims.

At the 10th meeting of the UN Road Safety Collaboration hosted by UNESCAP in Bangkok recently, panelists agreed that the global economic downturn presented additional challenges to the road safety effort leading up to the first UN Ministerial Conference on Road Safety. But the experts stressed that every challenge is an opportunity. With billions of dollars due to be spent on infrastructural development in the coming decade, road safety must be incorporated as a key development imperative. Careful assessment of the road traffic injury patterns, allocation of human and financial resources, and national capacity building coupled with international cooperation can turn the tide of death and disability.

Moderated by Dr. Etienne Krug, Director of the Violence and Injury Prevention Department of the WHO, the meeting discussed specific efforts by UNRSC members, and touched on upcoming activities including preparations for the Ministerial Conference.

High hopes are pinned on the Moscow Ministerial. The global conference, due to be held in the Kremlin Palace November 19-20, will be the first of its kind, and General Victor Kiryanov, Chief State Road Safety Inspector in the Russian Federation updated the group on preparations. Road safety advocates hope that the conference will generate the political will necessary for road safety initiatives and support a proposed Decade of Action for Road Safety 2010-2020.

David Ward, Director General of the FIA Foundation and coordinator of the Make Roads Safe campaign, reminded the participants of the millions of lives at stake and issued a clarion call for action.

“The Moscow Conference can and should be a milestone in the response to road traffic injuries,” said Ward. “And hopefully it will mark the start of a decade of determined action to defeat this avoidable epidemic.”

Bangladesh has one of the worst Crash Rates in the world more than 100 deaths per 10,000 registered vehicles.

The Director General of the FIA Foundation acknowledged that economic recession would affect funding for road safety initiatives but stressed that safety provisions must be built into road infrastructure investment portfolios. He suggested donor agencies must take the lead in ensuring that roads are designed, built, assessed and upgraded with road safety as a primary concern.

“By failing to act now, we will be condemning a whole generation to a hazardous life on killer roads,” warned David Ward.

The overall message emerging from the Road Safety Collaboration meeting was clear: Road traffic injuries are an important public health and sustainable development problem, and we face a range of potentially catastrophic consequences if we adopt a "business as usual" approach. However, the good news is that the epidemic is both predictable and preventable. With political will, public awareness and proper remedial tools, we can avert the carnage.

Pedestrians, cyclists and motorcycle riders are the most vulnerable road users and account for the majority of traffic deaths in low and middle income countries.

The need for action is dire. Road accidents disproportionately affect the poor, making road safety a vital issue for economic development. Most of the victims of road accidents aren't even in a motor vehicle. Pedestrians, cyclists and motorcycle riders are the most vulnerable road users and account for the majority of traffic deaths in low and middle income countries. In Dhaka city, pedestrians alone comprise almost 75 percent of road accident fatalities

Even if we leave aside for a moment the casualty statistics, the economic burden in itself is staggering. Road traffic injuries place a strain on the country's economy through the direct impacts on health care and rehabilitation services as well as through the indirect costs. It is estimated that road crashes cost us roughly 2% of GDP every year. This is almost equal to the total foreign aid received by Bangladesh in a given fiscal year!

For Hajera Begum, a farmer in Munshiganj district, a road crash in January 2008 meant not only the loss of her husband, but also a one-way ticket to poverty. Hajera was taking vegetables to market with her husband Solaiman, when the pickup truck they were riding was hit by a bus coming from the opposite direction. The truck overturned, killing 5 people. Solaiman was among those killed on the spot. Hajera herself suffered broken ribs, but survived. She soon found that her world had changed for good.

“My family used to be well off,” says Hajera. “We had quite a bit of land, and we made a good living off it. But since my husband died, I have struggled. I have had to sell much of our land. Some of it was grabbed by local gangs. I am now worried for the future of myself and my two children. All our dreams were shattered in an instant.”

Shattered dreams and broken lives litter our roads

Shattered dreams and broken lives litter our roads -- and road safety specialist Dr. Alan Ross warns things are poised to get worse. As countries modernise, more and more roads are being built without safety audits. “It's a sad fact that if you go to any developing country and ask about the 5 most dangerous stretches of road in that country, you will usually find that these are the roads that have recently been built or upgraded,” says Alan Ross.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) projects that by 2020 road crash injuries will be the third highest threat to public health, outranking diseases such as tuberculosis, diarrhoeal diseases and HIV/AIDS. In South Asia alone, road traffic fatalities are expected to increase from 135,000 in 2000 to 330,000 in 2020 (World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention, WHO, 2004). That is a whopping 144 percent increase in deaths from road crashes.

The diverse group that makes up the UN Road Safety Collaboration is doing all it can to stem the tide of death and destruction. If the UNRSC has its way, 2009 will be remembered as the year that Road Safety rose up the international agenda and governments sat down to take concerted action against this modern day plague. It may finally be time to reclaim our roads.


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