Every year, 1.2 million people are killed worldwide as a result of road accidents and up to 50 million more are injured. Most of these are in non-OECD countries, but no one can feel complacent. In Europe, more than 100,000 people die, while a further 2 million people are injured. Road accidents are the principal cause of death for young men under 25.
Nor do road accidents come cheap. There are high costs in terms of lost productive capacity and human capital, be it for fatalities or injuries. Add to this the medical and non-medical rehabilitation expenses. Some costs are less obvious: broken families, the loss of a wage-earner, even the cost of counselling. And of course, damage to property has to be paid for. Some estimates put the total economic loss resulting from road deaths and injuries at a remarkable 2-3% of GDP in OECD countries.
This makes road safety a serious public health issue. So much so that the World Health Organization made road safety the theme of this year’s World Health Day on 7 April. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan seized on this opportunity to remind people that road traffic injuries can be prevented, but only with deliberate action from many sectors of society, including transport, education, health and law enforcement. He cited France, historically one of the worst countries in Europe for road fatalities, as an example of what can be achieved. Since 2002, road safety has been tightened and the number of road traffic deaths has been cut by 20%.
This is an encouraging decline, and the European Conference of Ministers of Transport (ECMT) is taking a lead to ensure such progress continues. For many years the ECMT has worked towards cutting down on the number of road accidents by publishing comparative data, by making governments aware of best practice and by drawing up recommendations for action.
To this effect, the ECMT Council of Ministers unanimously agreed to set a target in 2002 to cut the number of road deaths by 50% by the year 2012. This is a laudable, though highly ambitious, goal, in view of discouraging trends in some countries, particularly Russia.
Each country has to define its own strategy to reach this goal. It will require cooperation from players across the spectrum, from those involved with policing and legislation, to public awareness and innovative technologies. To set this cooperation in motion and to make it work, a political commitment from the very highest level is vital. In fact, the improvement in France can be traced to just such a commitment, from President Jacques Chirac.
A checklist of the measures needed to reach the goal of halving fatalities will be presented at the next ECMT Council of Ministers meeting in Ljubljana on 26-27 May. These measures are grouped under three main themes: expanding the awareness and the involvement of the public/community; promoting the importance of reliable data, particularly in the field of research; and providing finance and management. Road safety programmes do not have to be expensive to be efficient. In fact, there are cost-effective tools available that can make a serious difference, such as a gradual introduction to driving; penalty points systems; random breathtesting for alcohol; and even clearer road marking, to list just a few.
Every year a survey will assess progress. Data will be gathered, lessons learned and experiences shared. In this way we will show that, while the car may be essential in our lives, road deaths are not a fatality.
* The ECMT, established in 1953, is an intergovernmental organisation grouping 43 European member countries, 7 associate countries and 1 observer country. It is a forum in which ministers responsible for transport, particularly the inland transport sector, can discuss current problems, co-operate on policy and agree on joint approaches aimed at improving and developing European transport systems.
ECMT (2003), Road Safety: Impact of New Technologies, OECD, Paris.
ECMT (2002), Safety on Roads: What’s the Vision?, OECD, Paris.
©OECD Observer No 243, May 2004