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‘A dream of no road deaths’
14 January 2008

Vision Zero envisages no carnage on the roads. Developed and developing countries have tried and tested methods for cutting road deaths - we should follow the example.

Neil Fraser
Neil Fraser

MANY years ago, an acquaintance who lived in Brussels, Belgium, told me that his wife, a senior employee in the international division of an American airline company (now closed down), was excited about a special party the airline had planned.

It turns out that the occasion was to celebrate the fact that the airline had reduced its annual baggage losses to an all-time low - only one million pieces. I was reminded of his story on seeing The Star newspaper's headlines on Monday, 7 January - "Take a bow, SA motorists".

The effusive congratulations were because in December, "263 fewer people died on the nation's roads compared to the same period last year … The number of fatalities went down from 1 465 in December 2006 to 1 202 … a decrease of 18 percent".

The Star: "Until police exercise a visible presence right through the year and the motoring public's attitude changes to slower and more defensive driving, with no alcohol or substance abuse, we will never decrease our shameful statistics."

Australian model
He went on to quote Australia as a model, "where no one dares exceed the speed limit due to effective policing and a saner, more responsible attitude by the public - Australia has a miniscule 300 deaths a year - and there is still consternation."

Compared to Australia's 300 deaths a year in accidents in a population of 22 million (0,0014 percent); the USA has 42 000 a year with a population of 300 million (0,014 percent); while we have 26 000 (2006 figures) and a population of 46 million (0,057 percent).

So what's this got to do with cities?

Towards the end of last year I received a number of articles from Neal Peirce whose writing I have quoted from or included previously from time to time in Citichat. He is one of the Washington Post Writers Group. Here is the first of two articles that I believe are just so appropriate for where we are at this point in time that I wanted to share them with you.

Appropriate because the inner city, and in the fact the whole metro, will progressively be experiencing major changes to its roadways and footways through projects I outlined last year - Rea Vaya, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system; the Gautrain; and the upgrading of the inner city streets.
These provide a once in a lifetime opportunity for roadways and footways to be seriously “re-invented” and not just end up as cosmetic surgery. Please let's not spend our money in merely changing bad pavement surfacing for good, but let's seriously look at their design and use (especially where informal traders are permitted) and the public's safety needs.

Otherwise we are just throwing away our money and a great opportunity.

Vision Zero
Now zeroing out all traffic fatalities must become an explicit US and worldwide goal. Otherwise we have no prospect of taming the appalling roadway death toll -- 42 000 lives lost yearly in the United States, close to 1,2 million worldwide.

That's the message of Dr Mark Rosenberg, the founder and former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

My first reaction was scepticism when I heard Rosenberg make the case at a Global Urban Summit in Italy this summer. But he makes a compelling comparison to global eradication of smallpox - a stunning public health success. The know-how for a cure - the vaccine - had been known for decades, but it took a worldwide commitment to finally control it.

Traffic deaths, Rosenberg insists, constitute an epidemic we can prevent. Sweden has succeeded, driving its yearly toll down to 440, the lowest since World War II. Annual traffic-related deaths of children, once 118, sank to 11 at last count.

How did the Swedes do it? Tough seat belt and helmet laws, to be sure. But they've also begun to remake their roadways. Red lights at intersections (which encourage drivers to accelerate dangerously to "beat the light") are being replaced with traffic circles. Four-foot high barriers of lightweight but tough Mylar are being installed down the centre of roadways to prevent head-on collisions, and as side barriers at critical locations. On local streets, narrowed roadways and speed bumps, plus raised pedestrian crosswalks, limit speeds to a generally non-lethal 20 miles an hour.

Safety redesign
Britain, New Zealand and the Netherlands are also registering major success with safety redesign and tough roadway rules. New Zealand cut its death rate by 50 percent in 10 years. But in the United States, we're "stuck", notes Rosenberg, at 42 000 to 43 000 deaths a year, adding:

"If those 42 000 deaths came from air accidents, air traffic would come to a screaming halt, all airports closed until we fixed the problem. But because our staggering numbers of road deaths come in ones and twos, they don't get attention. Fatalism is our biggest enemy."

Across the world, says Rosenberg, road injuries are likely to double by 2020 and could well total 100 million by 2050. The big reason: rapid motorisation of India and China, indeed the entire developing world (the capitalistic dream of every automaker from General Motors to Toyota).

Cars and trucks are especially lethal in developing countries as they accelerate on roadways filled with pedestrians, cyclists, jitneys and sometimes farm animals and hand-drawn wagons.

Without the protection of riding in one's own vehicle (our "steel cages", Rosenberg notes), vast majorities of children and adults in such countries face high danger of direct and deadly vehicle impact. In Vietnam, for example, there are almost 3 000 fatalities for every 10 000 crashes.

Rising death toll
Indeed, the World Health Organisation (WHO) projects that highway deaths may well pass global death tolls from HIV/Aids in the next two decades. And the death toll doesn't include serious injuries, which the WHO estimates as high as 50 million annually, many resulting in lifelong paralysis and permanent disability.

I asked Rosenberg if Americans have any stake in the developing world's traffic dangers. A "big one", he replied, noting that US business people (engineers and chief executives), soldiers, students, all travel there. Plus, he insists, we could play a huge humanitarian role with our resources and knowledge.

Some developing world cities - Bogota, Colombia, for example - have shown it's possible to cut roadway accidents dramatically by rigorous crackdowns on reckless or drunk driving and improved street layouts.

But if developing nations were helped to build their new roads, and remade old ones using technologies like Sweden's traffic dividers, literally millions of lives could be saved, tens of millions of frightening injuries avoided.

Rosenberg, a former US assistant surgeon-general and now executive director of the Task Force for Child Survival and Development, is making a life cause, helping to create a world network to spread the Vision Zero concept.

International action
And, he notes, there's been lots of international action since the United Nations General Assembly first debated the issue in 2004. A UN Road Safety Collaboration was brought together by the WHO. The World Bank is mobilising resources to help developing countries in particular. George Robertson of Britain, a former secretary-general of Nato, chairs a new Commission on Global Road Safety, which Rosenberg leads.

There's now a push for a 2009 UN Ministerial Conference on road safety - a first-ever meeting of cabinet level officials from both developing and developed countries to set a global strategy.

"A hundred million lives are at stake," says Rosenberg. "With Vision Zero we have a chance to avoid an unimaginable disaster. It's hard to walk away from it."

All the very best for 2008.

Regards, Neil

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Last Updated on 14 January 2008