By Nneka Henry, Head of the UN Road Safety Fund and Jane Burston, Executive Director of the Clean Air Fund
As economies around the world have developed, rapid industrialisation and urbanisation have often been accompanied by rapid motorisation. These trends are set to continue as developing countries continue to industrialise and car ownership grows. The management and regulation of road safety and air pollution are failing to keep up.
In the last three decades, developing countries have seen a 153% rise in deaths caused by air pollution. Polluted air is responsible for 10% of all deaths in Africa and air pollution-related mortality rates have risen by 31% on the continent in the last 10 years. Worldwide, outdoor air pollution causes 4.2 million premature deaths every year. On average, the mean loss of life expectancy is 2.9 years for the world population. Similarly, 90% of the world’s road fatalities happen in low- and middle-income countries, with the highest number on the African continent. Globally, more than 1.35 million people die on roads each year, while 50 million are injured and end up with life-changing disabilities.
The twin scourges of air pollution and road traffic accidents disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations. Road traffic crashes are the leading killer of children and young adults between the ages of 5 and 29. An estimated 93% of children under 15 breathe densely polluted air, which jeopardises their development. For example, in Thailand which has the 9th highest rate of road traffic fatalities in the world, over 400 schools were closed for several days in Bangkok in 2019 and 2020 due to severe smog. In Beijing, China, lack of clean air stopped outdoor activities and prevented children from playing outside with their friends in 2013. And despite the evident link between vehicle emission and pollution, 25.5 million cars had been newly registered in China by 2019., with the numbers increasing every year.
The International Transport Forum Summit on 18 May 2022 and the UN high-level meeting on improving global road safety on 30 June are opportunities for world leaders to commit to advancing sustainable development goals through inclusive green mobility solutions and road safety financing. More importantly, the events serve as a reminder that national development strategies and international development assistance need to prioritise a ‘package deal’ between responsible financing, road safety and the environment.
What should a road safety and climate ‘package deal’ include?
First, investing in cleaner used vehicles, which is proving to be rewarding for both people and planet. The transport sector is responsible for approximately 23% of total energy-related CO2 emissions. Better regulating exports of used cars to developing countries can significantly improve road safety while reducing pollution and CO2 emissions as a significant number of used vehicles do not meet road safety standards leading to both road crashes and air pollution. This is something that the UN Road Safety Fund is seeking to tackle through its Safer and Cleaner Used Vehicles in Africa project, which brings exporters, the European Union, and African importing countries together, to develop and agree on minimum standards for used vehicles.
Second, adopting people-centred approaches to sustainable cities. Cities that address air pollution and road safety through well-planned transport systems, walkable streets and green spaces are more likely to support physical fitness, mental health and social cohesion. One example from the UK are ‘School Streets’ – roads outside schools with a temporary restriction on motorised traffic at school drop-off and pick-up times. In addition to making streets safe for schoolchildren, a recent study found that these temporary restrictions reduce polluting nitrogen in London by 23%.
Third, ‘walking the talk’ when it comes to implementing policies and replicating best practices. City leaders in many low- and middle-income countries are demonstrating that safe and clean mobility is the future. For example, in Zambia’s capital, the Mayor of Lusaka Miles Sampa implemented a 30km/h default speed limit around schools and other pedestrian zones. Lower speeds not only reduce car crashes and make streets safer but they can also reduce emissions, leading to cleaner air.
Finally, financing grassroots initiatives that contribute towards greener transportations systems and subsequently cleaner air is imperative. In Nigeria, a technology-driven transportation start-up called Shuttlers is revolutionising how people commute in the ever-busy Lagos and Abuja metropolis through bus-sharing services. Research shows that travelling via public transport is ten times safer, cheaper, and much less taxing on the environment compared with private vehicles.
It is urgent that we reshape our fiscal policies and invest in road safety systems that preserve the planet and protect people. This includes setting ambitious targets for air quality; pledging to invest in road safety; and implementing practical measures such as ‘School Streets’ and ‘Cleaner Used Vehicles’, which make urban areas cleaner and safer. It is time that the global community recognises how important this is to achieving the global development agenda and how important safer, cleaner urban spaces are for most people, irrespective of where they are in the world.