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    Volume 8 Issue 96 | November 27, 2009 |

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An Epidemic on Wheels

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

Historically, winter expeditions to Moscow have been a recipe for disaster. Formidable campaigners such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler have floundered against Russia's fearsome winter and the steely resolve of Muscovites. But when government ministers, development workers, and road safety advocates from all over the world descended on Moscow last week for the first ever Global Ministerial Meeting on Road Safety, the mood was optimistic rather than defeatist.

“This summit is both a celebration and a historic opportunity,” said movie star Michelle Yeoh, who is ambassador for the Make Roads Safe global campaign. “This is the first time leaders from all over the world have gathered to discuss road traffic injury. It is an acknowledgement of the enormous human suffering caused by road crashes. But now we have to make the case that there are inexpensive steps that can be taken to save thousands of lives. This is a winnable cause.”

The participants rose to the occasion. The Global Ministerial Meeting issued a call for urgent action and increased resources to tackle the growing humanitarian crisis on the roads of developing countries. Top of the agenda at the conference was the call to support a 'UN Decade of Action for Road Safety', first proposed by the Make Roads Safe campaign led by the FIA Foundation. Ministers of health, transport, education, foreign affairs and others; UN agency representatives; nongovernmental and business leaders; and road safety experts from more than 70 countries shared ideas and insights and agreed to mount a concerted fight back against the road death epidemic.

Road crashes cost Bangladesh 2 per cent of GDP every year.

“The overall impact of road injuries is no less dramatic for our planet than the consequences of the world's recession or food security,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said while opening the conference, adding that road crashes cost developing countries a significant portion of their GDP and result in 1.3 million deaths a year.

Speaking to the Star Magazine at the conference venue, Bangladesh's Communications Minister Syed Abul Hossain said that the Moscow Conference had raised the profile of the road safety problem, but the UN must now be called upon to declare a Decade of Action if millions of lives are to be saved. Syed Abul Hossain who was accompanied by the Chief Engineer of the Roads and Highways Department and several noted road safety experts, said that the priority for Bangladesh was the construction of dividers on all the major highways in order to improve safety.

Road safety expert Prof Mazharul Hoque stressed the need for a multi-sectorial approach. “According to WHO guidelines we must have a properly equipped lead agency that will coordinate the activities of various government agencies.”

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.

Kevin Watkins, senior fellow at the Centre for Global Economic Governance at Oxford University and a leading United Nations Development expert spelt out the extent of the problem in cold, hard economic terms. Road accidents kill and injure people who are young and productive, said Dr. Watkins, and can mean a one-way ticket to poverty for many families. Apart from the loss of productivity, in some countries more than half of the surgical and trauma beds in hospitals are taken up by road victims.

"Most finance ministers go to bed at night without reflecting properly on the cost to their economies due to road accidents”, he said, adding that the associated costs in many countries are equivalent to up to 4 percent of gross domestic product.

Apart from saving lives, investment in safer roads can be repaid five to ten times over because of the reduction in health care and other related costs, John Dawson, chairman of the International Road Assessment Program (iRAP) told the conference.

"We don't need serious money to make roads safe," said Dawson, adding 3.5 million kilometers (2.17 million miles) of the world's roads are considered dangerous. “What is needed is awareness and political will to make the right decisions.”

Stars such as Michael Schumacher and Andrei Arshavin expressed their support for the Decade of Action. During the Decade the international community should invest in a $300 million action plan to catalyse traffic injury prevention and re-focus national road safety policies and budgets, said experts.

In her speech, Michelle Yeoh evoked the image of enduring heroism. “I jump out of burning buildings with James Bond,” the star of Tomorrow Never Dies and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon told ministers. “I pretend to save lives. But today you have a real opportunity to be heroes. By acting now, you can save millions of lives over the next decade.”

The Ministerial Meeting adopted the 'Moscow Declaration' on the final day, calling for a firm and substantial global commitment to curb what is not only a humanitarian emergency, but also a sustainable development problem. The overall message coming out of Moscow was clear: official inattention toward road accidents should be ended, that the public and private sectors should commit funds to fight them, that developing countries should do far more to acknowledge the problem, and that making roads safe won't break the bank. With political will, public awareness and proper remedial tools, we can avert the carnage.

In a closing speech to the Ministerial, UK Transport Minister Paul Clark said that even during the two days of the summit more than 7000 people had died on the roads. “This cannot be right. This can and must be prevented”, he said. “We must go from here determined to make a difference. We are the people to act. And this is the time for action”.

Road safety experts and activists will be hoping that the Moscow Ministerial will kick start a decade of determined action on road safety. According to John Dawson, “People will look back at Moscow, and think: this is where it all began!”

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