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Interview with Dr. Peter Van der Knaap, Managing Director of SWOV

Peter Van der Knaap


You are the CEO of SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research. Can you please explain us what is the role and objectives of your Institute?

SWOV is the Netherlands’ national scientific institute for road safety research. It has been our mission since 1962 to improve road safety by providing knowledge from scientific research and that is exactly what we do. We are 50 highly dedicated researchers, ready to help policymakers and other road traffic professionals to answer road safety relevant questions. Our research covers all domains: infrastructure, technology, enforcement, and traffic behaviour. SWOV is a non-profit organization; most of the SWOV-research is made possible by public funds such as EU Framework Programmes.

You represent the academic sector in the Advisory Board of the UNRSF, can you explain us your role and why it  is important for the academic sector to be included in this Board?

To effectively improve road safety around the world and to achieve the goals set by the UN, it is important to understand the road safety challenge in all its dimensions. Knowledge from scientific research is crucial in this respect, but we also aim to help select the most effective and best evidence-based measures. Achieving results is impossible without knowledge. Fundamental research, combined with a thorough evaluation of public policy programs, are indispensable.  Together with the other Board member from the academic sector in the Advisory Board, KATRI, SWOV aims to contribute to making the UNRSF as well-informed and effective as possible.

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) has proclaimed a new road safety decade of Action for Road Safety, with a goal of reducing road traffic deaths and injuries by at least 50% from 2021-2030. Why is the new resolution so important to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

Stating goals in any policy domain is important as this may lead to a stronger commitment of governments and leaders to actually take the necessary steps to address societal challenges. In the field of road safety, strangely enough, many countries still seem to need this wake-up call from the UN, especially when it comes down to helping middle- and low-income countries. This is even true for The Netherlands, one of the leading countries in combatting traffic casualties. Improving road safety is a long-term endeavor. Defining specific road safety ambitions, for instance in the form of Safety Performance Indicators, can help determine if we are still booking progress towards the desired goals. Plus: to determine where additional efforts are needed.   

Road traffic injuries are currently the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5–29 years, signalling a need for a shift in the current child and adolescent health agenda which, to date, has largely neglected road safety. How to stop this tragedy and save the young generation?

I agree this is a major challenge. A first start would be to make road safety a national priority, to set up a systematic road safety policy program. Evaluation studies have proven that adopting what we call a ‘sustainable road safety approach’ really works. Herein, the aim is to ‘nullify’ or terminate serious crashes from happening and to mitigate the severity of the crashes that still do happen. The human dimension is the primary focus: it is man who is vulnerable, makes mistakes and does not abide by the rules. And this, unfortunately, is especially true for children and many young adults - I know this from experience... Road engineering, vehicle-design, and technology all must contribute to safety and protection in order to make the safety of the traffic system as little dependent on individual actions as possible. This will benefit children, young adults, and the elderly alike.

The resolution encourages Member States to support for the UN Road Safety Fund (UNRSF). In your opinion, what is the role of the UNRSF entering this new decade?

The most important role of the UNRSF is to support and stimulate road safety programs worldwide that are evidently the most effective or, when dealing with new challenges such as distraction, most promising in improving road safety. For this the Fund needs to grow and to show real results. There is plenty to do: setting and enforcing speed limits, preventing drunk driving, using helmets and safety belts, working towards improved vehicle and infrastructure safety, post-crash care, and facilitating safer mobility environments… the task is immense. The good news is: so are the opportunities! And let us not forget: by preventing traffic-related injuries we can not only reduce mortality, but also help reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on health, cities and infrastructure that are central to the new decade. I look forward to it!