Road traffic injuries or crashes result in the deaths of approximately 1.3 million people around the world each year and leave between 20 and 50 million people with non-fatal injuries. More than half of all road traffic deaths and injuries involve vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists and their passengers.
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The young are particularly vulnerable on the world’s roads and road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5–29. Young males under 25 years are more likely to be involved in road traffic crashes than females, with 73% of all road traffic deaths occurring among young males in that age. Developing economies record higher rates of road traffic injuries, with 93% of fatalities coming from low- and middle-income countries.
In addition to the human suffering caused by road traffic injuries, they also incur a heavy economic burden on victims and their families, both through treatment costs for the injured and through loss of productivity of those killed or disabled. More broadly, road traffic injuries have a serious impact on national economies, costing countries 3% of their annual gross domestic product.
Measures proven to reduce the risk of road traffic injuries and deaths exist and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has set ambitious targets for reducing road traffic injuries.
The safe system approach: accommodating human error
The safe system approach to road safety aims to ensure a safe transport system for all road users. Such an approach takes into account people’s vulnerability to serious injuries in road traffic crashes and recognizes that the system should be designed to be forgiving of human error. The cornerstones of this approach are safe roads and roadsides, safe speeds, safe vehicles, and safe road users, all of which must be addressed in order to eliminate fatal crashes and reduce serious injuries.
- An increase in average speed is directly related both to the likelihood of a crash occurring and to the severity of the consequences of the crash. For example, every 1% increase in mean speed produces a 4% increase in the fatal crash risk and a 3% increase in the serious crash risk.
- The death risk for pedestrians hit by car fronts rises rapidly (4.5 times from 50 km/h to 65 km/h).
- In car-to-car side impacts the fatality risk for car occupants is 85% at 65 km/h.
Driving under the influence of alcohol and other psychoactive substances
- Driving under the influence of alcohol and any psychoactive substance or drug increases the risk of a crash that results in death or serious injuries.
- In the case of drink-driving, the risk of a road traffic crash starts at low levels of blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and increases significantly when the driver’s BAC is ≥ 0.04 g/dl.
- In the case of drug-driving, the risk of incurring a road traffic crash is increased to differing degrees depending on the psychoactive drug used. For example, the risk of a fatal crash occurring among those who have used amphetamines is about 5 times the risk of someone who hasn’t.
Nonuse of motorcycle helmets, seat-belts, and child restraints
- Correct helmet use can lead to a 42% reduction in the risk of fatal injuries and a 69% reduction in the risk of head injuries.
- Wearing a seat-belt reduces the risk of death among drivers and front seat occupants by 45 – 50%, and the risk of death and serious injuries among rear seat occupants by 25%.
- The use of child restraints can lead to a 60% reduction in deaths.
There are many types of distractions that can lead to impaired driving. The distraction caused by mobile phones is a growing concern for road safety.
- Drivers using mobile phones are approximately 4 times more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers not using a mobile phone. Using a phone while driving slows reaction times (notably braking reaction time, but also reaction to traffic signals), and makes it difficult to keep in the correct lane, and to keep the correct following distances.
- Hands-free phones are not much safer than hand-held phone sets, and texting considerably increases the risk of a crash.
Unsafe road infrastructure
The design of roads can have a considerable impact on their safety. Ideally, roads should be designed keeping in mind the safety of all road users. This would mean making sure that there are adequate facilities for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists. Measures such as footpaths, cycling lanes, safe crossing points, and other traffic calming measures can be critical to reducing the risk of injury among these road users.
Safe vehicles play a critical role in averting crashes and reducing the likelihood of serious injury. There are a number of UN regulations on vehicle safety that, if applied to countries’ manufacturing and production standards, would potentially save many lives. These include requiring vehicle manufacturers to meet front and side impact regulations, to include electronic stability control (to prevent over-steering) and to ensure airbags and seat-belts are fitted in all vehicles. Without these basic standards the risk of traffic injuries – both to those in the vehicle and those out of it – is considerably increased.
Inadequate post-crash care
Delays in detecting and providing care for those involved in a road traffic crash increase the severity of injuries. Care of injuries after a crash has occurred is extremely time-sensitive: delays of minutes can make the difference between life and death. Improving post-crash care requires ensuring access to timely prehospital care, and improving the quality of both prehospital and hospital care, such as through specialist training programmes.
Inadequate law enforcement of traffic laws
If traffic laws on drink-driving, seat-belt wearing, speed limits, helmets, and child restraints are not enforced, they cannot bring about the expected reduction in road traffic fatalities and injuries related to specific behaviours. Thus, if traffic laws are not enforced or are perceived as not being enforced, it is likely they will not be complied with and therefore will have very little chance of influencing behaviour.
Effective enforcement includes establishing, regularly updating, and enforcing laws at the national, municipal, and local levels that address the above mentioned risk factors. It includes also the definition of appropriate penalties.
What can be done to address road traffic injuries
Road traffic injuries can be prevented. Governments need to take action to address road safety in a holistic manner. This requires involvement from multiple sectors such as transport, police, health, education, and actions that address the safety of roads, vehicles, and road users.
Effective interventions include designing safer infrastructure and incorporating road safety features into land-use and transport planning, improving the safety features of vehicles; enhancing post-crash care for victims of road traffic crashes; setting and enforcing laws relating to key risks, and raising public awareness.