Roads are now the biggest killer of young people over the age of 10, with road traffic deaths constituting a global health epidemic that has reached crisis proportions, according to a report published on Wednesday.
The Safe and Sustainable Roads report, launched by the Campaign for Global Road Safety, says road safety is one of the world's greatest development challenges and predicts the number of people killed in traffic accidents will rise from 1.3 million to 2 million a year if no urgent action is taken.
Currently, 3,500 people die every day in traffic-related incidents and 50 million are injured every year on the world's roads.
The report blames the high numbers of fatalities on transport policies that put vehicles, highways and speed before people and road safety. The vast majority of those who die are in developing countries, with 20 countries accounting for 70% of global road deaths.
Children and young people are the worst affected, with road traffic injuries now the single biggest source of fatality among 10- to 24-year-olds worldwide. In 2004, the last year for which comprehensive data is available, road traffic injuries killed more 5- to 14-year-olds than malaria, diarrhoea and HIV and Aids.
If left unhindered, the report warns that spiralling road deaths and injuries will be a significant barrier to the world hitting education and poverty targets set out in the millennium development goals.
The Campaign for Global Road Safety is urging world leaders to take urgent action to integrate sustainable transport and road safety into the Rio+20 framework.
It warns there is no "hidden magic bullet" for tackling road safety but says that, unlike many other health epidemics, there are simple, affordable and tested interventions that are simply not being applied or enforced. These include the enforcement of rules on crash helmets, seat belts and drink driving, and the strengthening of vehicle safety provisions.
"The epidemic of road traffic injury is a source of poverty, human suffering and economic waste on a global scale," says Kevin Watkins, senior research fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the report. "Over the next two decades, the number of vehicles in the world's poorest countries will increase at an unprecedented rate. Unlike some of the issues that will be discussed at the Rio+20 summit, there are few unknowns in road safety. It's not rocket science, yet progress has been painfully slow.
"Bilateral donors and the World Bank have been talking for years about putting road safety at the centre of their infrastructure programmes – but the rhetoric has yet to deliver results."
The report sets out recommendations that could help prevent road deaths, including stronger regulation to prevent car manufacturers conducting a "race to the bottom" in vehicle safety provisions for the poorest countries. It says an additional $200m is needed annually to support the development of national road safety strategies in countries worst hit by road traffic fatalities.
This has been revealed by the World Health Organization (WHO) in its first ever Global Status Report on Road Safety. The report pointed to speeding, drunk driving and low use of helmets, seat belts and child restraints in vehicles as the main contributing factors.
Every hour, 40 people under the age of 25 die in road accidents around the globe. According to the WHO, this is the second most important cause of death for 5 to 29 year olds.
A bus fell from a bridge into a dry riverbed in northwestern India last month, killing at least 26 students and teachers on board
In India alone, the death toll rose to 14 per hour in 2009 as opposed to 13 the previous year. The total number of deaths every year due to road accidents has now passed the 135,000 mark, according to the latest report of National Crime Records Bureau or NCRB.
While trucks and two-wheelers were responsible for over 40 per cent of deaths, peak traffic during the afternoon and evening rush hours is the most dangerous time to be on the roads.
Drunken driving is a major factor
The NCRB report further states that drunken driving was a major factor for road accidents. Joint Commissioner of Police Maxwell Perreira maintains that there has to be a change in drivers' mindsets.
Trucks are responsible for many road accidents in India
"Most of the city accidents are not necessarily out of drunken driving," says Pereira. "But 99 per cent of the accidents, the fatal accidents that occur outside the cities are due to drunken driving and there is no check on this kind of drunken driving. Unfortunately, truck drivers think they are fully armed to drive on the highway when they are fully drunk! Until and unless this country comes up with a new method of checking drunkenness on the highways, I don't think these fatalities can be lessened."
Inefficient law enforcement
Prince Singhal, founder of the Campaign Against Drunken Driving (CADD), a decade-old movement with support across the country, says the increase in fatal accidents only proves the lack of concern on the part of state governments and police towards the problem of drunken driving.
"It's growing day by day because liquor is a state subject and its happening everywhere in the country, not just Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad and metro towns. There is an ineffective law, there is no judicial procedure, there is no enforcement by the police, no specific segment where they can book people under drunk driving."
India is experiencing a car boom
Campaigns against drunken driving have not proved effective. And the increasing number of prosecutions for drunken driving has also not been a deterrent. But Singhal is determined to change this.
"Now things are going to change because we met government representatives and we filed a white paper policy on road safety. So there is going to be national council which is going to be formed very soon in the country. The matter is in parliament and it is already approved by the cabinet. And very soon you will see a specific body on road safety is going to be formed."
The time for action is now: Road deaths increased by nearly 40 per cent between 2003 and 2008 in India, and the more progressive and developed states like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are the ones most affected.
Road safety experts also warn that the real numbers of fatalities could be much higher since many cases are not even reported. There is no estimate as to how many people injured in road accidents die a few hours or days after the accident. And their deaths are then no longer linked to road traffic accidents.
Author: Murali Krishnan (New Delhi)
Editor: Grahame Lucas