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Lethal roads are undermining the entire sustainable development agenda. The world must not miss its opportunity to change course

Blog ES 29 June 2022

At what point do we cease to be alarmed by a shocking reality? Many of you may already be familiar with the following figures, from the last WHO Global Status Report on Road Safety (2018).

Every year 1.3 million people are killed and around 50 million injured on the world’s roads, often with lifelong consequences.

Or the fact that children and young people aged 5 to 29 are more likely to die as a result of a road traffic crash than from any disease or any other health risk. 

And what’s more, the situation is getting worse.

This global picture also masks stark inequalities, since road crashes disproportionately affect the world’s poorest. Over 90% of fatalities occur in low- to middle-income countries, with Africa holding the highest death rate at 26.6 people per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to Europe’s rate of 9.3 per 100,000. We also know that vulnerable road users – pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists – represent more than half of all global deaths. 

Road Safety is a key development issue, costing developing countries between 2-5% of GDP every year. This means that there can be no sustainable development without increased safety on the world’s roads. Today, poor road safety means hundreds of millions of dollars are not available to countries to build schools and universities (SDG 4); to build hospitals, rural clinics and efficient ambulance networks (SDG 3) ; to invest in infrastructure to allow the storage and the transportation of food (SDG1, 2, 8, 9, 12); to invest in access to water and sanitation (SDG 3, 6), in job creation (SDG 8), in access to energy (SDG 7) and decent housing (SDG 11), in environmental protection (SDG 15) and climate action (SDG 13).

How is it that such a brutal and unjust status quo does not sound the alarm bells and prompt large-scale action among politicians, businesses and societies worldwide?

Sadly, death and injury have become far too widely accepted as an inevitable part of how we move around. But we do not have to pay this price for mobility and transportation. At this staggering scale, crashes cannot be considered simply as “accidents”. In fact, there is nothing inevitable about this bloodshed.

As the international community prepares to gather for the first-ever High-Level Meeting on Global Road Safety, convened by the President of the General Assembly on 30 June-1 July, we have a unique opportunity to address this crisis of – and I stress – preventable crashes.

For we know how to build safer vehicles; we know how to build safe roads; we know the benefits of clear and consistent traffic rules and road signs in making roads safer. And we know how to safely transport chemicals, fuels and other hazardous materials.

The UN road safety “package” saves lives

This is thanks to the UN Road Safety legal instruments, for which UNECE is a proud custodian. These are international Conventions and agreements open to all UN member States, that provide a blueprint to countries to legislate and apply practical measures to ensure safety on the roads. Seven of these legal instruments constitute the core UN road safety “package” that every country in the world should apply as a minimum set of rules. There is a strong correlation in most cases, between compliance with our 7 Conventions and reduced mortality on the roads.

With the first of these instruments adopted back in 1949, the international community has a track record of over 73 years of cooperation on road safety, which we must all seize as an asset. UNECE also hosts the only permanent intergovernmental body dealing with Road Safety in the UN system - the Global Forum for Road Traffic Safety – where countries from all over the world come and share experiences and best practices and learn from each other. We were happy to see Brazil join the Forum earlier this year.

Looking ahead, we have a clear roadmap to guide our efforts in the form of the Global Plan for the 2nd Decade of Action for Road Safety 2021-2030 prepared by WHO, UNECE and the other 4 UN regional commissions, in cooperation with other partners. The Decade aims at a 50% reduction in road traffic fatalities and injuries by 2030 - an objective which is also enshrined in SDG target 3.6. Today, we are far from being on track.

Strengthened political will and significant additional funding are needed

To deliver on this collective commitment and promote safe and sustainable mobility for all, we need strengthened political will and significant additional funding. This is crucial since road safety is severely underfunded in most countries. The United Nations Road Safety Fund, launched in 2018, which I am proud to host at UNECE, provides the vehicle to mobilize funding at scale and ensure coordinated, targeted action to save lives. Through contributions of US$ 20 million since its establishment, the Fund has already supported 25 projects in 30 low- and middle-income countries, bringing together UN expertise with governments, the private sector, civil society and academia to address key gaps in countries’ road safety systems. From safe school zones in Paraguay and the Philippines to safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists in Ethiopia, these are investments that we know pay off, and show the clear potential of joining forces. And together, we could do much more: mobilizing US$ 100 million for the UN Road Safety Fund would help save an estimated 64,000 lives, prevent 640,000 serious injuries, leverage US$ 3.4 billion of country and city road safety investment.

At the General Assembly session, we will announce the new contributions pledged by public and private donors within the replenishment cycle of the Fund, which will support further concrete action on the ground. But this is still far from what is needed given the magnitude of the challenge.

This High-level Meeting must be the occasion to gather momentum politically and financially for road safety. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, the burst of inflation and the economic, social and political tensions created by the war in Ukraine, there is a real risk that countries’ attention is not sufficiently focused on this challenge.

Together, we must therefore call on all Member States to live up to their political and financing commitments on road safety. This starts by ensuring that all vehicles used on their territory - whether new or second-hand - comply with minimum UN safety standards.  This also means integrating road safety into all relevant national policies, in areas ranging from urban planning to education, and ensuring adequate funding in national budgets.

Wherever you live and whatever your experience, it is still time to be alarmed by an avoidable global tragedy. We must seize this chance to change course, choosing safer roads on the path to sustainable development.

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