The traffic accident crisis

It’s a shocking statistic: nothing kills more young men aged 15-29 than road traffic accidents. Three quarters of the estimated 1.2 million road deaths around the world each year involve men, and road accidents are the second biggest cause of disabilities and illness among adolescents.

As I sit and write this in our office in Thailand, I’m also quickly reminded that I’m writing from a country with the unwanted tag of having Asia’s deadliest roads. And some of the deadliest in the world.

According to a 2013 WHO report, the East Asia-Pacific region saw more than a staggering 153,000 fatalities from road accidents – well over 400 people each day. It’s a huge number, surpassing many current conflicts or disease outbreaks. Those who survive are often left disabled, many permanently.

Since reaching a peak in road deaths in the 1970s, rich countries have become much better at reducing the number of traffic accidents. Developing countries, by contrast, have seen an increasing death toll as car sales have accelerated.

In the East Asia-Pacific region, Thailand continues to have one of the highest rates of road fatalities followed by Malaysia, Laos, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Philippines. And, as the number of vehicles on the road continues to increase, we can sadly only expect to see the number of accidents and young victims increase as well.

Reducing risk

Accidents happen, but steps can be taken to minimize the risk of accidents. There are some good experiences from Europe where they have succeeded in dramatically reducing road traffic accidents.

Sweden is on its way to reaching zero road deaths per year. It’s an incredible feat, coming from a peak in road deaths in the 1970s. In 1997, Sweden implemented a “Vision Zero” plan in hopes of eradicating all road deaths and injuries, and it has already cut the deaths by half since 2000. In 2012, just one child under seven years old was killed on a road, compared with 58 in 1970.

In order to achieve this, Sweden has rebuilt roads to prioritize safety over speed and other considerations. Sweden has also created 12,600 safer pedestrian crossings with features such as bridges, flashing lights, and speed bumps. That’s estimated to have halved pedestrian deaths over the past five years. The country has lowered speed limits in urban, crowded areas and built barriers to protect bikers from oncoming traffic. A crackdown on drunk driving has also helped.

None of the countries in the East Asia-Pacific region currently have legislation that covers all the key risk factors of road traffic injury (speeding, drink driving, use of motorcycle helmets, seatbelt use and child restraints). Putting legislation in place and allocating enough resources to implement changes would have a dramatic effect.

As more countries in this region approach or reach middle-income status, the threat of increasing road traffic accidents occur. That’s why Governments need to start thinking about how they can help guarantee driver, cyclist and pedestrian safety. Policies that promote walking, cycling, using public transport safely would help save lives, reduce disability, improve health and reduce impact on the environment.

UNICEF is partnering with WHO and the AIP Foundation in Vietnam in an effort to prevent road traffic deaths and disabilities among children by promoting helmet use among adolescents. The National Child Helmet Action Plan aims to ensure more adolescents wear helmets and become partners in promoting improved road safety.

The impact of traffic accidents in the region is turning into a crisis and without more efforts to reduce the risks, the numbers will continue to climb.

The author

Devashish Dutta, Youth and Adolescent Development Specialist, UNICEF East Asia & Pacific office

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