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     Volume 8 Issue 90 | October 16, 2009 |

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Roads for Life

Stein Lundebye

Stein Lundebye is a doyen of Road Safety and former senior engineer of the World Bank's Road Safety Task Force. He has more than 39 years of planning and engineering experience on a variety of road safety and traffic engineering projects in Europe and in developing countries in Africa, The Middle East and South Asia. Mr. Lundebye was one of the key persons initiating the establishment of the Global Road Safety Partnership (GRSP).

As senior transport engineer of the World Bank he was responsible for providing technical advice to major road safety assignments in Bangladesh. Stein Lundebye spoke to Syed Zain Al-Mahmood about his efforts to curb death and disability on Bangladesh's roads.

You have spent much of this decade trying to improve road safety in countries like Bangladesh. What is the road safety scenario right now?
Unfortunately Bangladesh has one of the highest road accident fatality rates in the world. Road accident statistics show that the fatality rate is more than 73 deaths per 10,000 registered motor vehicles per year. Every year it seems to get worse. During my visit to Dhaka I have cut out all newspaper articles daily about road accidents in Bangladesh, and I am horrified to see how many serious road accidents have taken place over the short time period I have been here! Just before I came, former finance minister Saifur Rahman, whom I knew, was killed in a road crash. Incidents such as this should be a wake up call. But are we ready to wake up?

Should there be a fundamental shift in philosophy when it comes to Road Safety?
Absolutely. Many people view road traffic policy as a compromise between mobility benefits and safety problems. They think road deaths are an inevitable byproduct of motorization. We are telling governments everywhere that you don't have to trade safety for mobility. By adopting fundamental principles of safety we could probably reduce road accident fatalities by 80 to 90 percent. The benefits in terms of both lives and livelihoods are huge. But the political will must be there.

You are saying the onus should be on the people who build and manage the roads, not just on the drivers who drive on them?
Well, there is a saying in Norway that cars don't crash into trees, it is the driver. Having said that, you cannot place the entire burden of avoiding accidents on the shoulders of the motorist. Today's systems assume that humans don't make mistakes. If you make a mistake for two seconds, you might be killed. We have effectively been forbidden to crash! But the system should tolerate mistakes, and you should design the system on the basis of human failure. Roads should be “forgiving” i.e., constructed in such a way that even if a motorist makes a mistake, he will not crash or lose his life.

Road accidents fatalities can be reduced by 80 to 90 percent if Bangladesh adopts the fundamental principles of safety.

How can you build forgiving roads?
The biggest changes must be in road infrastructure design. Traditional road design aimed to reduce the number of crashes by widening and straightening roads. But that has no impact on the rate of death and disability because people start to drive faster.

We aim not only to decrease the number of crashes, but to decrease the fatalities and serious injuries with traffic calming measures like roundabouts and elevated crossings. The body has crash tolerance limits; they should not be exceeded.

Even if the driver loses control, the infrastructure should be able to mitigate the seriousness of the crash. This can be achieved for example by clearing trees and boulders from the sides of roads and installing side barriers; it is kinetic energy control.

There should not be a mixing of fast and slow traffic. In places where highways pass through population centres separate tracks can be built by the side of the highway for rickshaws and push carts.

How much does this cost?
The new safety principles, and traffic calming techniques, are cheaper in the long run than accident prevention. And once that investment is made it produces benefits every year. If you consider the healthcare costs involved in treating road injury victims, the savings are huge.

Tell us about the specific work that you did in Bangladesh.
In the late 90s and during the first half of this decade I was involved with the World Bank funded Third Road Rehabilitation and Maintenance Project (RRMP-III) for the Roads and Highways Department (RHD), Ministry of Communications, Government of Bangladesh. This major project included construction and rehabilitation of major national roads, maintenance of national and regional roads, improvement of feeder roads and the implementation of a comprehensive road safety program. As part of the program we identified and improved accident blackspots on national roads, performed safety audits and oversaw a major traffic signs and road marking program for national and regional roads. We prepared detailed road safety engineering manuals for the Roads and Highways Department. We also put forward comprehensive recommendations which we hoped the government of Bangladesh would implement. There were also community-based efforts to build awareness.

Did your study of accident blackspots help improve safety in any specific localities?
A comprehensive pilot study on road safety awareness was carried out for communities living next to highways. I am confident that the knowledge gained from those studies, if properly implemented, would improve safety for communities along the main roads. For example, experience and lessons learned from the pilot study were used for the communities situated along a major 50 km toll road (Nalka-Bonpara road), which was opened in 2003.

You mentioned community based initiatives?
We found that commitment and ownership of the community to improve road safety is important for sustainability of road safety activities at the local level. During project implementation, local Community Volunteers (CVs) were engaged, who were students, shopkeepers and local physicians. We also devised a variety of very effective awareness activities, in many cases working with local NGOs.

Five years on, do you see your efforts bearing fruit? Is road safety improving in Bangladesh?
No, I do not. And I say this with a heavy heart. Very few of our recommendations have been implemented by the government. Maybe all our reports and data are gathering dust in some government office. I am reminded of the saying, “you can take a horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink.” It is sad, because Bangladesh has everything to gain from implementing road safety measures. There is still time. Government and semi-government institutions along with NGOs should come forward to take up road safety awareness as a national agenda along with other mass development programs. The tide of road traffic injury must be turned.



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