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.
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 infrastructure, services 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.
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 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:
- 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.
- Fragmentation. Government bodies with responsibilities related to improving road safety are not coordinated.
- Prioritisation. Road safety isn’t seen as a politically rewarding topic. As such, it isn’t prioritised.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Read the full case study
Road safety in Mumbai: making in-roads
Greater Mumbai has one of the highest population densities in the world, with more than 18 million people crammed into this bustling and strained city.
This city is almost split in two: to the south, the city centre perched on reclaimed land, to the north-east vast sprawling suburbs. The housing is unaffordable in the Island City centre, so most people live in suburban Mumbai or beyond. The population of the suburbs overtook Island City in the 1970s and has been growing rapidly ever since.
The city’s tremendous growth and its geography puts great strain on its infrastructure. To get to work, people rely on the rail and bus networks. The rail network sees 7 million trips a day. Despite congestion making them slow, buses facilitate 5.5 million journeys a day – half a million more journeys than are made on the London Underground. Travel costs are high, too.
The average person living in Mumbai spends 11% of their total income on public transport. The poorest pay 16%. This expensive, high-volume mass transit system is unable to meet demand. A problem exacerbated by the fact that services are badly linked, forcing travellers crossing the city to route through the centre.
Traffic collisions claim the lives of two people every day. Vulnerable road users – typically travelling by exposed modes of transport like walking and cycling – account for more than 90% of fatalities and over half of these fatalities are pedestrians. This is part of a broader, worsening problem in India. Last year, road crashes cost the government about $8 billion, or 3% of the national gross domestic product. And this is as well as the financial, economic and emotional effect on the families affected.
In recent years, the Indian government has paid increasing attention to road safety due to international and domestic factors. Yet decrees from above have not translated into action on the ground. The Motor Vehicles Act – established almost 30 years ago – required that states create Road Safety Councils. Another 21 years passed before a Council was set up in Maharashtra – involving representatives from across the state government. But the Council has no authority to make any decisions, no backing in law, and no money. And their focus is on cars, not pedestrians or cyclists.
In 2010, the National Road Safety Policy was published. All levels of government are meant to prioritise safer infrastructure, safer vehicles and safer drivers, with states advised to create their own version of the national-level policy. But, in most cases, policies are duplicated, word for word, showing just how little thought is put into road safety at this lower level.
More positively, in the same year, public interest litigation demanding action on road safety was filed in Mumbai, and the resulting recommendations do seem to be having an impact: in 2016, for the first time in four years, the number of fatalities has dropped.
In Mumbai, road safety is viewed as a problem with behaviour not a problem with design. Consequently, the government prioritises building new roads instead – an approach that is popular because it benefits car-users, who also tend to be powerful and wealthy. Road safety and other transport infrastructure changes are not popular: their impact is less visible and there is little demand for change among influential groups.
The current transport minister has made road safety a government priority, but has been unable to pass relevant legislation. He has been blocked by the opposition, other members of the legislature, and independent bodies (like the transport unions car lobby) protecting their own interests – all of which suggests the establishment are unwilling to see poor infrastructure as a contributing factor to poor road safety.
This unwillingness is exacerbated by a commonly-held view that road safety is the personal responsibility of individuals. Risky behaviour – which is often the result of inadequate infrastructure – reinforces this perception, and is used to excuse systemic road safety failures.
The limited demand – among both the public and policy-makers – to prioritise road safety means that while progress is being made, it is slow and faltering, and recent gains are at risk of being reversed by the construction of more poorly designed, high-speed roads.
Read the full case study
Road safety in Bogotá: paving the pathways to change
In the 10 years between 1996 and 2006, Bogotá reduced its road fatality rate by over 60% – from just over 22 fatalities per 100,000 people, to seven. While this rate remains high – and has plateaued – there are valuable lessons to be learned from this success. How did Bogotá manage to achieve this significant reduction so quickly?
Colombia’s capital and largest city is home to 8 million people who take 15 million trips a day. Most people walk, or take a bus – so many in fact, that despite its size, only 190,000 vehicles travel into the city each day.
Despite the overall reduction, pedestrians remain over represented in the fatality figures, consistently making up 50% of the total. Most are male (80%) and young – the highest risk group being comprised of those aged 20–30 years.
Following a similar pattern to Nairobi and Mumbai, most of the severe crashes happen where infrastructure is less well-developed, in the south of the city. And once again, the problem of road safety is also one of equality.
Political leadership has facilitated Bogotá’s improvement. In 1991, Colombia introduced a national constitutional reform and decentralisation process that strengthened Bogotá’s city mayors. This new mayoral vision transformed the city, including the improvement of road safety. Early reforms focused on making more money available for flexible infrastructure spending.
Reforms continued under Antanas Mockus. He developed a series of ‘life is sacred’ policies, aimed at changing the behaviour of people in public spaces. One of these policies encouraged citizens to use 350,000 ‘thumbs-up’ or ‘thumbs-down’ cards to approve or disapprove of the behaviour of others in public spaces and their adherence to road traffic rules.
Mockus worked to restore faith in public institutions. As part of his ‘Citizenship Culture’ policies, he employed mimes to direct traffic and, by mocking transgressors, encouraged citizens to follow the traffic rules. This social pressure mattered to people far more than paying fines to a corrupt police force and also encouraged people to expect safer behaviour from their fellow citizens. To further improve public expectations around safe road use, the city traffic police department was abolished and responsibility transferred to the better respected metropolitan police.
Mockus, and later mayors, also introduced new infrastructure plans – including dedicated lanes for cyclists and bus rapid transit (BRT). While these efforts didn’t explicitly set out to reduce road fatalities, they had an impressive positive effect on their numbers. The reorganisation of the bus system decreased travel times, and reduced the danger of buses without proper bus stops weaving in and out of mixed traffic lanes. This increase in capacity and efficiency encouraged people who were previously sceptical of public transport to embrace the new system. In all of this, pedestrians were prioritised. Not only were they given priority on the roads, but facilities like footbridges were built to improve access to bus stations and ‘bigger than recommended’ crossings were constructed.
These changes reduced the number of collisions and fatalities, and saved the city $288 million.
Progress has plateaued and renewed efforts are needed to reduce the number of fatalities further. A significant step towards this was made in 2017 when Bogotá formalized a Vision Zero road safety plan to improve coordination and prioritisation of road safety improvements. Bogotá’s experience demonstrates that integrating road safety into different elements of public policy, institutions and infrastructure planning offers a powerful route to swift improvement. Doing this consistently across time and political administrations can unlock sustained progress.