UN Tackles Carnage On The World’s Roads

“If we tell people that they should walk and cycle, and it’s not safe, like it is in many, many countries and cities, we are sending people to their deaths.” —Dr. Etienne Krug

Traffic crashes claim about 1.3 million lives globally every year – more than two every minute — and as many as 50 million more lives are seriously impacted by injuries. Since the invention of the automobile, over 50 million people have died on the world’s roads.

In addition to human suffering, crashes place a heavy financial burden on victims and their families, through treatment costs for the injured and loss of productivity of those killed or disabled, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nation’s lead agency for road safety.

The tragedies go beyond the personal; they have a serious impact on national economies.

To draw attention to the public health crisis, the Office of the President of the UN General Assembly hosted the first High-Level Meeting on Global Road Safety at the UN headquarters in New York on June 30 and July 1.

Etienne Krug, director of the WHO’s Department of Social Determinants of Health, spoke with Forbes about the two-day event to improve safety around the world.

Dr. Krug’s responses were edited for clarity and length.

Forbes: Why does road safety warrant such high-level attention?

Dr. Krug: Our cities are overwhelmed by our car-based transportation system. It causes deaths, injuries and disabilities, and it causes pollution and traffic jams. It’s not sustainable. We need to move towards more sustainable transport. But to do that, we have to make it safe. Parents should feel confident sending their kids to school on a bike or bus, or on foot. If we tell people that they should walk and cycle, and it’s not safe, like it is in many, many countries and cities, we are sending people to their deaths.

Road safety is not a new issue. Why have this meeting now?

There was a strong sense that this was needed. There are not many health topics that get discussed in a high level meeting at the UN General Assembly. There’s been HIV, non-communicable diseases, tuberculosis, and maybe one or two others. Because this one is such a multisectoral topic, it made total sense to have a high-level meeting. This was also the first time the Secretary General of the United Nations came to a General Assembly debate on road safety, an important signal of the commitment and level of interest that is needed.

What was the main goal?

The objective was to have the highest level of attention at national and city levels. It was the first international gathering after the Stockholm conference (Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety in 2020), which had an enormous amount of energy and a great vibe, but we lost some of that during the Covid pandemic. This was an opportunity to regain some of that attention, energy and momentum.

(Forbes: The Stockholm Declaration, a series of recommendations to improve road safety, around the world, was the official outcome at the Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety in Stockholm in 2020.)

How was the meeting different from others in the past?

This was the first ever high-level meeting on road safety (an official UN term that means a two day event at the highest possible level of government) with opportunities for more discussion, interaction, awareness raising and commitment than previous UN meetings, which usually take two hours. We received official statements from almost 80 member countries, and ministers from very different corners of the world attended, from Argentina to Luxembourg to Sweden. Malaysia was there. We also had keynote speeches, plenary sessions, panel discussions, and many side events, so there was much more interaction.

How would you characterize the current level of interest in road safety?

It’s been a natural progression from almost total ignorance of the topic 20 years ago at the international level to a much higher level of attention. Since then, two targets in the UN’s sustainable development agenda have been dedicated to road safety – a first Decade of Action and a second Decade of Action – and the realization that to be successful at the national level, you need good coordination of many different ministries: transport, health, education, and finance at the highest level of government. If you leave road safety to one single ministry, very often it doesn’t work because you need all of these other parts of the government to participate.

(Forbes: The UN declared the ten years between 2011-2020 as the First Decade of Action for Road Safety, and between 2021 and 2030 as the Second Decade of Action. Both established a global plan to help member states reduce road deaths and serious injuries by at least 50% by adopting measures like improving the design of roads, vehicles,and infrastructure, enhancing laws and enforcement, and providing better emergency care.)

Did the meeting go as planned?

It has not been a smooth process, because the international political climate is very polarized right now. It is not the ideal time to negotiate any political declaration because of that, so we are happy that we did. Basically, the international community got to rally and based on the importance they wanted to give to this topic, they managed to get agreement,which in itself is an achievement in the current political climate.

What was the end result?

The formal outcome was the adoption of a strong political declaration. We have full agreement from all member states for the second Decade of Action. The question is, how do we translate this global target into national and local action? To achieve that, each country needs to set its own targets and develop its own plan by identifying roles and responsibilities in the different parts of governments, civil society and the private sector, and have dedicated funding, so we can keep up the momentum from this meeting and transform it into real action.

A skeptic would say that the goal of the First Decade of Action, to halve road deaths from 2010 to 2020, didn’t happen – the number of worldwide deaths actually increased. Do you think this initiative will make a difference?

I am sure it will. We had relative success with the first Decade of Action by stopping the increase; we have a plateau now in terms of deaths, despite the fact that the population is increasing at the global level and there are more cars on the road. But it’s not enough and we don’t want to be satisfied with just a plateau. We want to see a serious decrease.

After the Covid crisis, this was an opportunity to put road safety back in the spotlight. The world faces so many complex problems, but this is a complex problem for which we know the solutions. It’s not like we are scratching our heads to figure out how to make our roads safer. We know what needs to be done, but we’re not doing it. It’s an issue of political will to say “okay, we are going to implement these solutions.” A meeting like this helps create momentum, create energy, and to cross-fertilize ideas. Many ministers heard from other ministers about what they’re doing, and there were many side meetings to learn and collaborate. Of course, UN meetings are not enough.They need to be followed up with capacity building, financial support and with continuous reminding and energizing. But yes, it will make a difference.

You mentioned Bogota, Colombia, which recently halved road deaths over a ten year period. How did the city do it?

One of the important recommendations in the Stockholm Declaration and the Decade of Action is a shift to move away from a car- based transportation system to a people-centered one, and making it safe for people to walk, cycle and use public transport. Bogota has taken steps in that direction by developing a strong public transportation system.

Another important recommendation in those initiatives is for the private sector to play a more active and positive role. It has a direct impact on road safety through , for example, car makers, auto equipment manufacturers, the alcohol industry, and the media. Companies can also play an active role, particularly those with big fleets and many employees, whom they can influence. The private sector can contribute to road safety, but it’s not doing it enough. It’s time for the private sector to step up.

In Bogota, the effort was led by the public sector.

What were some other highlights of the meeting?

There was strong support from NGOs, including those representing victims, that made passionate pleas, which is always emotional, but also motivating. There was a very strong youth presence, calling for their contributions to road safety to be recognized and to play an even bigger role in decision making. I think that’s very important, because road traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among young adults. They are the ones who will probably drive the modal shift. Many young people are not willing to own a car, but are willing to cycle, walk and use public transport much more, and that, I think, will set the tone for the future.

You said it will take a holistic approach to successfully address the death toll on the world’s roads. Can individual people help?

We all need to think about the greater good and be aware that our behavior impacts ourselves as well as others. Through our behavior, we can save lives. We can also be role models to the younger generation when it comes to considering alternative transportation modes. We all are satisfied when there are positive results. We can collectively turn this around; we really can do it. It’s in the hands of governments, it’s in the hands of the private sector, but it’s also in our own hands.

To view recorded portions of the meeting, broadcast on UN Web TV, click here.

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