Securing safe roads: Cars and trucks now the biggest killer of young people worldwide

ODI, WRI and FIA Foundation logos

It is morning in Kibera, a neighbourhood about seven miles from the centre of Nairobi. Smartly dressed young children – white socks pulled up to their knees, school jumpers on and bags over their shoulders – will wave to their parents and set off for school. Among them is Purity, who walks for two hours a day along roads without sidewalks, inches from thundering trucks spewing thick diesel fumes.

Road safety has been escalated to an issue of international concern but globally, numbers of fatalities are rising and it is now the biggest killer of young people worldwide.

Purity is just one child in a city that is home to three million people. Twice a day, large numbers of school children join the thousands of commuters navigating fast roads, non-existent crossings, inattentive drivers and foul air. It’s little wonder that 65% of all road-related fatalities here are pedestrians.

Like any mother, Purity’s wants her daughter to do well in life – but her mother’s hopes for the future are tempered by more immediate concerns about the dangerous journey to school. ‘We fear when they are going out, when they are coming back,’ she says. ‘As my daughter is getting out and returning home I pray, “God, get me back my daughter.”’

Around the world, each year, traffic collisions kill 1.25 million people and injure up to 50 million more. Road-related fatalities mainly occur among poorer, working-age males who walk or cycle around their city and town. School-age children also face disproportionately higher risks. Worldwide, 90% of fatalities occur in low- and middle-income countries – countries like Kenya, India and Colombia.

The findings from the Nairobi, Mumbai and Bogotá case studies reinforce trends identified in the broader road safety literature. In all three cities, pedestrians account for more than 50% of fatalities, with working-age males making up between 65–80%. Motorcycles display a startlingly high level of risk in Mumbai and Bogotá, making up only 5% of the mode share but more than 30% of fatalities. The wider economic impacts of poor road safety in these cities (such as loss of income and opportunity for families) are likely substantial.

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the World Resources Institute (WRI) have undertaken a research project to identify the challenges to improving road safety in low- and middle-income countries, learn from stories of progress, and provide a series of strategies that can help decision makers and practitioners working on road safety reform.

Making our roads safe requires infrastructureservices and policy solutions. Public transport, cycle paths, sidewalks and crossings should be planned and built with the whole community in mind, not just drivers. And resources are needed for infrastructure and law enforcement.

But road safety is also political. In many cases decision-makers have the money, the data and the ability to make improvements but there is little demand or motivation.

The ‘Safe System’ approach

A study of 53 countries found that those that have taken a ‘Safe System’ approach to road safety have been able to reduce traffic fatalities faster and to a greater degree than other countries.The approach is based on a set of principles that experts and policymakers can use as a guide. They represent a shift in perception, away from road safety as a personal responsibility to a public health issue that governments have the responsibility and power to address.

Top ten causes of death among young people aged 15–29 years (2012)

Costs and consequences

For families and communities, the social and financial impacts of both fatalities and injuries are substantial. They are compounded for people living in poverty.

Traffic collisions burden already stretched healthcare systems and, particularly, those households left without a breadwinner. A serious injury might mean months of lost work and impaired mobility – consequences that hit the poor disproportionately hard. Children may suffer trauma and fall behind at school, making it harder for them to achieve their potential.

While the cost of road safety failings weighs most heavily on those directly affected, the financial cost to society is substantial. Road collisions have been quantified by the World Health Organization as costing 3% of global gross domestic product.

The social and financial impacts of both fatalities and injuries are substantial, and compounded for people living in poverty. For some households, the loss or injury of a family member in a road traffic collision can be the difference between financial stability and poverty.

The four challenges of road safety

While there is knowledge about what to do and there are successful examples of how to do it, in many places progress is being made too slowly to keep up with the increasing number of pedestrians and cars on urban streets.

Avoiding fatalities is not just about building ‘better’ roads. Poor street design, limited safe public transport options, dangerously high vehicle speeds and inadequate enforcement of traffic laws are some of the many factors that contribute to an increased risk of collisions in today’s fast-growing cities.

Road safety research has largely focused on technical aspects like urban planning and vehicle standards but we wanted to know why reforms are not being embraced. Findings from Nairobi, Mumbai and Bogotá helped us identify four key challenges facing those looking to address road safety:

  1. Expectation. Instead of blaming collisions on a lack of infrastructure, inadequate regulation, poor planning or unsafe vehicles, politicians and the public blame road users themselves.
  2. Fragmentation. Government bodies with responsibilities related to improving road safety are not coordinated.
  3. Prioritisation. Road safety isn’t seen as a politically rewarding topic. As such, it isn’t prioritised.
  4. Comprehension. There isn’t enough data to understand the nuances of the problem and this is used to excuse inaction.

These challenges help to encapsulate why road safety reforms make less progress in some places than in others: understanding and addressing them is critical to ongoing efforts to improve road safety.

Many low- and middle-income countries are facing similar issues to those faced by our case study cities. Our research makes recommendations to help city governments, local advocacy groups and international organisations more effectively overcome the challenges of road safety reform.

Percentage of traffic fatalities in Nairobi, Mumbai and Bogotá

The way forward

Policy-makers tend to view road safety as a purely technical issue that can be easily addressed through improvements in infrastructure. But it is also a political issue. Reformers, whether they are in government, the private sector or civil society, must navigate the political case for reform. Of course, this makes the issue of road safety much more complex, encompassing equality, law and justice, health, economics, education and public attitudes. This may be daunting but it also reveals opportunities.

People will want reform for different reasons. This doesn’t matter. A business owner may want a bigger sidewalk outside their shop to encourage more business. Traffic management might be needed to ease congestion. Stakeholders might not view these issues as being explicitly about road safety, but wrapping road safety into them harnesses the energy surrounding issues that already have traction.

Opportunities exist at all levels. Whether power and money have been devolved to a city or not, whether local actors are able to drive or block reform, no one government system offers the best chance of progress on road safety. It is important to engage stakeholders at all levels of both government and society to build a coherent and holistic approach that spans departments and agencies.

Reported fatality rate per 100,000 inhabitants

An inclusive approach is essential. Progress has been slow in Nairobi and Mumbai, often due to the fragmentation of responsibilities across government departments. In Bogotá, however, a focus on reducing violent deaths led to a decrease in the number of road-related fatalities, while increased cross-institutional coordination and improved faith in institutions helped build the public case for reform.

But to make progress, don’t you need good data? Improvements in data collection and analysis can help to identify opportunities, coordinate stakeholders and engage the public. But progress shouldn’t be delayed because the data is incomplete. Basic investments in ‘good enough’ data – for example in locating crash hotspots – are enough make simple meaningful gains.

These entry points provide a way for reformers across government, the private sector and civil society to move forward, achieve the Sustainable Development Goals on road safety, and create a safer world for the billions of people who rely on our roads every day.

  • Tackle road safety together with other agendas. Find road safety champions and align complementary road safety agendas, for example easing congestion, reducing pollution and increasing affordable efficient mass transit.

  • Link road safety with other issues that people care about. Road safety touches on so many other issues: economics, equality, education, social inclusion, law and justice. In Bogotá progress on road safety was made when it was associated with civil society pressure to reduce violent deaths.

  • Seek opportunities at all levels of government. Those looking to make progress on road safety must understand and respond to the political and institutional dynamics at play in their cities and countries: find the actors with the power to drive reform, or block it.

  • Take advantage of wider institutional and governance reform. Reforms to the police, public transport, city finances and transport department can create opportunities to push road safety issues, mobilise resources and galvanise support.

  • Sequence actions. Rather than reaching for one integrated, simultaneously delivered solution that may face resistance, develop a plan to coordinate and prioritise actions over the short, medium and long term; taking into account the degree of impact as well as the political and financial feasibility.

  • Don’t wait for perfect data. Basic investments in ‘good enough’ data are enough to identify the most urgent road safety needs and inform the public about them.

Sustainable Development Goal 3 includes a pledge to halve the number of fatalities and injuries from traffic collisions by 2020 and, over the last 10 years, a range of international agencies have prioritised the issue. It looks unlikely that the goal will be met.

We need action now. Read the full report

Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is one of Africa’s fasting growing cities. Its population has doubled in just 16 years. If you are poor, you are likely to be walking or using public transport on a road system that prioritises cars. You may live in the east, in Eastlands and the Mathare Valley, or in Africa’s largest urban slum, Kibera. Living conditions in these areas are hard, and they are not served by any major roads.

Nairobi has a population of 4 million and reports 11 road-related fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants. Vulnerable users make up more than 90% of fatalities.

Instead, to get to work, some people walk as far as 20 kilometres each way. Others contribute to the 2.7 million public transport trips each day, many on the matatu (informal bus) system. Neither is a safe option.

Map of Nairobi. Photo: ODI and WRI

Most journeys involve at least some walking, weaving through crowded roads – dodging open drains, pot holes, street vendors and speeding vehicles. Unsurprisingly, in 2016, pedestrians accounted for 65% of all road fatalities according to the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA).

Using a matatu is not much safer. The matatus owners are a powerful group who resist regulation. The sector functions according to one simple rule: more passengers equals more money. Vehicles never stop for longer than is necessary to change drivers or passengers, and rarely stop for maintenance or new tyres – that would lose money. Drivers work long hours and don’t stop to rest, even if they are too tired to drive safely. Yet, this is the public transport that most people rely on.

Despite high death rates, the demand for better road safety is low. It is considered a personal responsibility: people blame those affected for causing collisions. They don’t see the underlying problems with city planning and poor public transport.

Attempts to regulate or improve the safety of privately operated public transport such as matatu minibuses have been strongly resisted by operators.

Nairobi is sprawling: more and more people are living on the outskirts and commuting to the city centre. To avoid matatus, many see owning a car and travelling privately as the solution. Increasing car ownership and urban sprawl are exacerbating congestion, but the public only demand more road space for cars and faster roads to drive on. This encourages government to invest in road expansion, rather than public transport and the safety of pedestrians and cyclists. Roads are visible, tangible signs to voters that the government is taking action.

Politicians are under pressure to make driving around the city faster and easier.

Traffic fatalities in Nairobi by road user.
In Nairobi road safety is being given more consideration, if not priority, in public policy and planning. The Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (NAMATA) and the National Transport and Safety Authority were both recently established, and a new non-motorised transport policy was created for Nairobi. Reported fatality numbers in the city have been dropping since 2013, and this may be related to these changes.

There is concern that any road safety measures will slow travel times, anger car-users and damage the economy. Attempts to increase traffic regulation are often resisted by public transport operators, including the matatu owners, who fear more regulation will reduce their profits.

Road construction is popular with the public, but road safety rarely enters public discussion. There is little political gain from making roads safer, if it means making them slower. This is despite evidence showing the negative impact that traffic collisions have on public health and economic productivity, and the lack of evidence that road safety improvements increase congestion.

Kenya does have a National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), which has a huge remit to improve road safety but limited power and resources. Road safety improvements like pedestrian crossings are not always considered in infrastructure design decisions. These decisions tend to be purely about economic investment. The NTSA should be able to influence road designs, but isn’t able to review all road construction plans. Even if it does make recommendations to improve safety, it can be ignored.

Public demand for road space for private cars and the appealing political and physical tangibility of road construction contracts skews government investment towards expanding roads rather than improving the safety of existing roads for pedestrians and cyclists.

There are civil society groups actively campaigning for road safety improvements. Recently, organisations supported by Kenya Bus and the Red Cross lobbied to improve school buses and reduce speed limits around schools to 30 km/h. The campaigners assumed their demands would be uncontroversial. A Member of Parliament took up the cause, advocating in the legislature. But a year later he dropped their case, reportedly disappointed the organisations wouldn’t offer him a bribe for his support. Other politicians opposed the bill, saying it would cause greater congestion and damage the economy. The speed limit outside schools was reduced to 50 km/h, not 30 km/h.

Making progress on road safety in Nairobi is far from easy, but there are signs of change. Seatbelt use has become mandatory and a new non-motorised transport policy has been approved by the Nairobi County Council. We also identified opportunities for improving how road safety is understood and addressed. Working with the motorcycle taxi association, taking advantage of road re-design, publically praising local governments for improving their road safety record, and making recommendations for road design mandatory are all ways in which roads in Nairobi could become safer. Road safety in the city is a collective action challenge, and if the different groups affected by this issue can come together, improvements should be possible.

Politicians focus on large-scale, car-oriented projects that generate short-term political rewards. Legal or regulatory changes to improve road safety are strongly resisted by powerful interest groups. Recently created institutions dedicated to road safety present an opportunity for better coordination and proactivity. A recent plan for non-motorised transport also shows a promising shift in the attention it pays to vulnerable road users.