Wave a Yellow Flag to Achieve SDG on Road Safety

Sign showing speed limit on a highway in Pakistan.
Sign showing speed limit on a highway in Pakistan.

By Greg Smith

If you knew that slowing down a little on your way home from work today might save your life or that of a loved one, would you do it? Please do so, and convince others to halve road deaths and injuries by 2020.

In September 2015 the world adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with a clear target to halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents by 2020. In terms of global development, the time between now and 2020 is like a blink of an eye, yet the task that has been set is monumental. Right now, 140,000 people either die or are injured on the world’s roads every day.

The inclusion of road safety in the SDGs is belated recognition that road crashes lead to appallingly high numbers of death and debilitating injury – at huge cost to development, society and the economy. Road crashes are the leading cause of death for young people. The development impact of road crashes is particularly profound in low- and middle-income countries, which suffer 9 out 10 of the world’s road deaths.

Some say that halving road deaths and injuries by 2020 is impossible; that by setting such an unrealistic goal, there is no chance of success and therefore every chance that failure will mean that prevention of road deaths and injuries is (again) relegated to the ‘too hard’ basket. Others say that the best we can hope for is to slow the rate of growth in road trauma in many countries, and set up the institutions and practices that might lead to a halving of deaths and injuries in the next decade.

I understand and have some sympathy for these views. Certainly, if we continue with a business-as-usual approach, then those predictions are likely to be proven correct. But I don’t accept the task is impossible.

If we are collectively brave enough to rethink the current approach, it just may be possible to achieve the 2020 target if we massively scale up our work in one area: speed. Of the myriad road safety interventions, speed management offers the single most powerful, practical and affordable option for reducing road deaths and injuries in a short time.

The logic is straightforward. When average speeds drop by 15% you can expect something in the order of a 50% reduction in fatal crashes. Speed affects risk for every road user: young and old, vehicle occupants, motorcyclists, pedestrians and bicyclists.

The physics is simple: each time speed doubles kinetic energy increases four-fold. The higher the speed, the longer it takes a vehicle to stop and the more kinetic energy a person needs to absorb in the event of a crash. This is why a pedestrian struck by car at 30km/h has good chance of avoiding serious injury, yet that same pedestrian has a very poor chance of avoiding serious injury or death if struck by that same car at 50km/h.

Virtually everyone in society has the power to do something about speed: drivers can choose to travel just a little slower, governments can set reasonable speed limits, police can enforce speed limits, road authorities can build simple traffic calming measures, communities can reject unsociable speeding on their streets, business can instill safe behavior in their workforce and development banks can support investment in speed management initiatives.

The Global Road Safety Partnership, World Health Organization, FIA Foundation and the World Bank have an excellent framework for managing speeds.It suggests a 30 km/h speed limit in built-up areas where there is a mix of vulnerable road users and motor vehicle traffic. Unless there is a roundabout, approaches to busy intersections should be 50km/h. Where there is risk of head-on crashes on undivided roads, speeds should be limited to 70km/h.

These are principles that, when put into practice, make deep and lasting impacts. Three small poor communities on the notoriously dangerous Dhaka-Sylhet Highway in Bangladesh—a road whose catastrophic levels of trauma have had a profound effect on me—have taken on the challenge of managing speed with outstanding success. The introduction of well-designed, low-cost traffic calming infrastructure resulted in average speeds dropping by 13.3 km/h in the villages. Prior to the improvements more than 20 people were killed or injured per month, but that number dropped to less than 6 people after the improvements – a 73% reduction. A meager financial investment has led to an enormous reduction in trauma, and shows that reducing speeds saves lives.

In a world where so many parts of our lives are speeding up, the idea of slowing traffic down will seem outlandish to some people. But can anyone truly argue that preventing 70,000 deaths and injuries every day is not worth all of us changing our behavior just a little for? The economic case alone is compelling: the benefit of achieving the SDG target is an astounding $1 trillion or more per year. And of course, many millions of families around the world would be saved the trauma of a loved one dying or being seriously injured.

In the same way that a waved yellow flag requires motor racing cars to slow when there is danger on the track, a slowing of worldwide traffic speeds could be a temporary measure. Higher speeds can be tolerated when infrastructure, vehicles and behavior are ready to accommodate it. Sweden, for example, has shown that when cars are rated 5-stars by EuroNCAP, roads 4-stars by EuroRAP, and drivers are sober, wearing seat belts and following the speed limit, very few deaths and serious injuries occur – even when speed limits are relatively high.

A global commitment to reducing speed could be encapsulated in a social compact: when roads are built on the basis of sufficient safety standards to mitigate impacts, speeds could again increase. We can begin this in the rapidly developing Asia-Pacific region—where most of the world’s road trauma occurs—with a commitment to slow, even just a little, during the ADB Transport Forum. We could expand the efforts at the next UN Global Road Safety Week. A halving of trauma during that week alone would mean preventing nearly half a million deaths and injuries.

If you knew that slowing down a little on your way home from work today might save your life or that of a loved one, would you do it? And if so, why not come together to convince others around the world to do the same and policy makers to act? It’s our best chance to halve deaths and injuries by 2020.