What are the politics of reducing carnage on the world’s roads? Great new paper from ODI

May 25, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Securing safe roads

There’s a form of casual violence that kills 1.25 million people a year (3 times more than malaria) and injures up to 50 million more. 90% of the deaths are of poor people (usually men) in poor countries. No guns are involved and there’s lots of things governments can do to fix it. But you’ll hardly ever read about it in the development literature, although road safety did make it into the Sustainable Development Goals (as did everything else, it has to be said) – targets 3.6 and 11.2 for SDG geeks.

So hats off to ODI (again) for not only painstakingly building the case for taking action on a major cause of death and misery in poor countries (see below), but also exploring the politics and institutions that so far have prevented governments from taking action.

I’ve just been reading the overview report of its Securing Safe Roads project, and it’s a model of its kind. Succinct, politically savvy and well evidenced, based on case studies from one municipal disaster zone (Nairobi), one city that’s made big strides (Bogotá) and one that lies somewhere in the middle (Mumbai). Here are some highlights:

Firstly overall, it’s bad and getting worse: ‘Traffic collisions are the leading cause of death among children and young people globally. Fatalities have increased in most low- and middle-income countries over the past 10 years. The World Health Organization estimates the annual economic cost of traffic fatalities and injuries to be around 3% of global gross domestic product (GDP).’

Now to the case studies:

Causes of death in people aged 15-29

‘In all three cities, pedestrians account for more than 50% of fatalities, with working-age males making up between 65–80%. Motorcycles display a startlingly high level of risk in Mumbai and Bogotá, making up more than 30% of fatalities. The wider economic impacts of poor road safety in these cities (such as loss of income and opportunity for families) are likely substantial. All three cities have made efforts to improve road safety, but progress has been uneven:

  • Nairobi. Politicians focus on large-scale, car-oriented projects that generate short-term political rewards. Legal or regulatory changes to improve road safety are strongly resisted by powerful interest groups. Recently created institutions dedicated to road safety present an opportunity for better coordination and proactivity. A recent plan for non-motorised transport also shows a promising shift in the attention it pays to vulnerable road users.
  • Mumbai. National calls for road safety reform have had little impact at the local level. Politicians focus on new major road projects, without integrating road safety considerations – an approach that is seen as more tangible and politically feasible. A Supreme Court ruling that requires states to create road safety plans may improve things but the need to advance other reform avenues remains.
  • Bogotá. In just 10 years (1996–2006) the city halved traffic fatalities. This was due to a combination of institutional and public transport reform, the reframing of road fatalities as a public health issue and investment in safe infrastructure. Fatality numbers have since plateaued. The city is seeking to catalyse further improvements through the application of a system-based approach to road safety.’

But rather than simply lamenting the carnage, the ODI starts to explore the politics that underlie inaction. In addition to lack of coordination between government bodies, and poor data:

Percentage of traffic fatalities in Nairobi, Mumbai and Bogota

Road safety is not a political priority. Currently, road safety lacks political salience. It is often subordinated to other priorities, and is perceived to be in direct conflict with efforts to reduce motor vehicle congestion. Therefore, while there is little opposition to improved outcomes, the reforms that are needed can be controversial. Instead, politicians deploy their influence and funding where they think they will be able to get greater visibility and recognition from other politicians, interest groups and the public.

Road safety is seen as an issue of personal responsibility, rather than government (in)action. Both decision-makers and the public tend to blame individual road users for collisions, rather than systemic issues such as infrastructure (or the lack thereof), weak regulation and planning or safe vehicles. Individuals often don’t think they will be affected by collisions, and often aren’t aware of the full array of options available to improve their safety. As a result, they tend to support short-term solutions and reactive measures, such as the simple expansion of a road network. These do not necessarily improve long-term road safety outcomes.’

The paper also comes up with some sensible suggestions for overcoming political paralysis:

  1. Bundle road safety with more prominent or popular issues (eg public transport or congestion) and try to reframe it as eg a public health or equality issue
  2. Build alliances across government. Both support for and opposition to road safety can exist at all levels: national, regional and local.
  3. Take advantage of wider institutional and governance reform. For example, when Bogotá established an elected mayor and improved institutional coordination and accountability, it boosted public faith in local institutions and created a willingness to follow local regulations. The door was open for road safety reformers.

If there’s one thing I would add, it’s more on the link with class/inequality. If (generally wealthier) car drivers oppose road safety measures that largely benefit poor people, and politicians tend to listen to the rich, how do you break the political logjam? Does linking road safety to poverty and inequality help?

Congrats to ODI – this is really important work.