A bigger killer than malaria

Chaired a session at the ‘Make Roads Safe’ event in Westminster early afternoon. The RAC had got me involved in this as part of a week long campaign on the issue that is part of the UN Global Road Safety Campaign.

My session was about whether Road Safety should be one of the Millennium Development Goals. Not sure whether you could actually add in new ‘goals’ – but I think the main point is that (a) it should be and (b) the goals for improving health are not achievable unless road safety in the developing world (well the whole world actually) gets proper attention.

Because road deaths tend to happen spread across numerous small incidents, they often get relatively little media coverage – and so it is easy to underestimate their volume.

One telling statistic – in the 1980s more Americans were dying each year on the roads than died in Vietnam in total, but you didn’t get nightly stories of carnage on the roads.

Road safety has – thankfully! – improved massively since then in the US. Looking round at other countries today though, road deaths around the developing world kill more people than malaria or TB for example. Stories about the fight against malaria pop up in our media, the overall story are the larger numbers being killed on the roads barely features.

The human tragedy is by far the greatest part of the problem, though – and forgive the harshness of this – it does also bring a financial burden, whether it is care for the injured or support the relatives. This all adds up to a significant financial drain on countries that are often struggling financially.

So – the importance and priority there should be on this issue seemed clear. I chaired a panel of three expert speakers who all gave excellent presentations on the costs – human and financial. All the panellists were quite clear that roads had to be built in order to develop and the situation in developing countries around the pros and cons of road building was quite different from those in a developed country like the UK. There are of course environmental costs of more roads (in terms of ending up with more vehicles and vehicle usage) and successful development requires much more than just roads – but those are issues for another day as this event was tightly focused on the question of safety.

Mark Rosenberg (one of the speakers) pointed out that if you replace a traffic light intersection with a roundabout you can reduce road accidents by something like 90% (from memory) – and switching to more roundabouts is just the sort of change that is practical in many places. Although we have loads of roundabouts in the UK, we’re pretty unusual in that regard – so who knows, perhaps UK firms will become global leaders in the roundabout field!

I asked the (very large) audience at the end if anyone disagreed with the proposition that road safety become one of the Millennium Development Goals – and to raise their hands if they did. Not a hand was raised. So I turned to the panel and said: ‘You won them over!’

0 thoughts on “A bigger killer than malaria

  1. I’ll start by saying I totally agree with efforts to improve road safety worldwide. Whether it should be a Millenium goal is another matter, but I don’t think anyone would argue it isn’t a problem worth addressing.First question: where did you get your statistics? I understand death rates are very imprecisely known, and estimates vary widely. Malaria is estimated between 700,000 and 1.1 million (although some older estimates go up to about 3 million), TB is estimated about 1.5 million, road traffic accidents 1.2 million. I suspect the uncertainty bounds on all of those overlap considerably. While it may well be a bigger killer than malaria, it’s a risky thing to cite surprising-sounding statistics without firm back-up.(See here for my main source http://www.who.int/healthinfo/bod/en/index.html )Second question: is the total number of deaths the best measure of the importance of an issue? Are diseases of childhood more important than those of old age? Is the rate important? (Malaria is mainly a problem in one part of Africa, traffic is a problem worldwide. The risk is spread more thinly.) Is only death significant or does ill health matter? (See the disability-adjusted life years figures in the link above, for example.)Third question: when deciding policy priorities, should you consider which option saves the most lives for a given amount of money, or which threat is greatest, or which is easiest to get the necessary political/popular support for? Given that the top country for traffic accidents is Iran (rate, not number – China has the most), do you think the other issues associated with that country will make things more difficult?This paper http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/31/3/527 discusses the issues of road traffic accidents in the developing world. One of the points made is that measures effective in Western nations (like roundabouts) are not effective there, where the problems are issues like more people riding motorbikes rather than driving cars, local communities split by major roads breaking down the fences and running across the road rather than using more distant crossing points, and more people travel on foot, on bicycles, or other non-motorised vehicles. It is important to understand the actual issues you’re trying to fix; what the blockers are, issues of local culture, local government, costs, practicalities, technology levels, logistics, maintainability, and so on.It is very easy to get people to agree that traffic deaths are bad and to set a target, but what we want from someone aspiring to government is evidence that they are competent to provide solutions. And one aspiring to a portfolio such as International Development would be expected to have a deep knowledge of any such issue. After all, if you win the next election, you could find yourself in charge of it!That’s not intended as personal criticism, but constructively, as a way of improving your case. OK, we agree it’s an important problem. So how would you solve it if you were in government?

  2. Thanks A2. The statistics were from the experts and documented by the UN Global Road Safety Camaign Group – and the point of a campaign is to highlight the importance of the issue.It is a worthwhile campaign and deaths which are pretty easily preventable should be prevented. It isn’t either malaria or road safety – it’s dealing with both!