Road accidents are a silent epidemic on wheels, says UN Road Safety Fund boss
United Nations delegates met in New York for talks on Friday ahead of a major high-level meeting next June to address how to reduce the huge annual death toll from road traffic accidents. In an interview with Geneva Solutions, Nneka Henry, head of the UN Road Safety Fund, says there needs to be greater awareness raised in fighting what she calls the silent "the epidemic on wheels".
Two military planes carrying the remains of 45 people, including 12 children, who died in a bus crash in Bulgaria in November arrived in North Macedonia for burial on Friday.
Wreaths were laid on the runway by the country’s president and prime minister, who paid tribute to the tragic accident that initial probes suggest was caused by human error after the bus crashed into flames on a highway.
On the same day, some 7,500 kilometres away in New York, United Nations delegates met for talks on how to reduce the huge annual death toll from road traffic accidents.
The numbers behind the tragedies like the one in Bulgaria are stark – more than one million people die in traffic crashes each year – and they have remained almost unchanged over the last decade. Over 50 million are seriously injured or left with lifelong disabilities.
In 2020, the UN launched a second “decade of action for road safety” with countries committing to halving the number of fatalities and injuries after failing to do so in the previous decade.
The preparatory talks on Friday were a warm up to the major high-level meeting that will be convened by the UN general assembly president in June 2022, when countries will have to present concrete plans for drastically improving safety on their roads.
Speaking to Geneva Solutions from New York ahead of the meeting, Nneka Henry, head of the secretariat of the UN Road Safety Fund (UNRSF), says Friday’s talks followed by the meeting in June are critical for setting the momentum.
“There are many countries, citizens and companies who still don't really understand this agenda and why it's important. So, Friday’s event was really a place for us to converge on what are the messages that we want to communicate and ask ‘what is it that we want happening at the height of the 2022 meeting?’” she says.
This lack of awareness and “mainstreaming” of road safety into national priorities by governments, in her view, is the primary reason why numbers have remained stubbornly high.
“If it's not visible in the mapping of your priorities and your programming, then you're not going to be financing it,” Henry continues. “These three things [the awareness-raising, mainstreaming and financing] are critical as to why those numbers were not going down.”
The UNRSF, a public-private partnership, launched in 2018 under the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), has raised around $20 million in that time to fund projects to improve road safety in low- and middle-income countries, where over 90 per cent of accidents occur.
In Laos, for example, the fund is working with the government to improve the national driver's licence system. “The government has identified that this is where there is a huge link to the increased crashes. People are not being, let's say, certified to be driving on the road in the proper way.”
In another example, the fund has been supporting Rwanda to scale its capacity to manufacture and certify motorcycle helmets that meet UN safety standards. The fund has also been working with countries including Azerbaijan and Uganda to improve emergency medical care for victims in the immediate aftermath of a crash to increase survival rates and reduce the chances of lifelong injuries.
In the first three years since its launch, the UNRSF has supported 30 countries. However, Henry says substantial more funds – at least $100m between 2022 and 2025 – are needed to be able to scale their efforts and expand the number of countries they support to 90 in the next four years.
Halving road fatalities is embedded in the third sustainable development goal (SDG) but it is not a standalone issue, Henry adds. “It is something that is affecting even gender rights and gender equality, and it's affecting climate action.
The UNECE and the UNRSF have worked with UN Environment Programme (UNEP), in West Africa, for example, to ensure vehicles are safer and cleaner. In 2020 in a milestone step, 15 West African states adopted environmental regulations that included ensuring that vehicles imported into the region and used are no more than 10 years old.
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Problems on the road also have a huge impact on poverty, economic growth, and prosperity. “There are strong linkages between road safety and decent work, but people were keeping it aside in the first decade of action. In the second decade, we want to see more interlinkages and mainstreaming of the issue, so that when donors and companies come to the boardroom with priorities and programmes, road safety is part and parcel of this agenda.”
The UNRSF’s public-private partnership model means that it receives around $3 of private sector funding for every dollar of overseas development assistance (ODA) from governments. Many of its donors are companies associated with the transport industry including Pirelli, the Michelin Corporate Foundation and the Total Foundation.
However, Henry said it is seeking to build greater awareness and engagement within the corporate world among new partners such as the insurance industry. “We have donors from typical industries like the tyre industry. But now as we go forward into this new decade of action, we are talking about bringing onboard new players.”
It is also in discussions with other unexpected allies like the fashion industry. “We are exploring how fashion can be used as an advocacy tool but also as a tool to engage micropayments for road safety.”
Whether a government, company, NGO or individual, everybody has a voice they can use to advocate for local road safety and fight what Henry describes as “a huge epidemic on wheels”.
“If there was a disease out there that was claiming 1.3 million lives every year, everybody would be doing everything to stop it. So, there's an issue here that people are not aware of. And this trickle of every 24 seconds someone dying, is more than a trickle – it’s a massive-scale, global development challenge.”
She concludes: “Thankfully it's something that we can solve – and it's something that we can solve within this generation.”