Stop calling them accidents!

Traffic collisions aren’t random: they have known causes that can be avoided. Still, car crashes are all too common and on the rise, claiming huge human and financial costs. So Julius Baer and others are joining forces to fight back.

Leading causes of death make a grim roll call, populated by the usual suspects: heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, road traffic … yes, you read that right, road traffic! Annually, says the World Health Organization, crashes kill 1.35 million people and injure another 50 million. That’s almost one per cent of the entire global population, year after year.

The global toll is heaviest in developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America, where growth in motor vehicles has grossly outpaced infrastructure and safety capacity. Heading the gruesome list of ‘most fatalities per capita’ is Zimbabwe, where each year, nearly eight of every ten thousand people die on the road.

Death rates in the developed world are far lower at 0.2–1 per ten thousand, reports the International Transport Forum (ITF), which is organised by the developed world’s think-tank, the OECD. And mortality has declined some 15 per cent in the past decade, the ITF adds, but that decrease has not been smooth. While car passenger safety has steadily improved, motorcyclist, bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities are often higher today than they were in the year 2000.

An uneven match
Ironically, this has happened as many cities have tried to become more bike-and walk-friendly. The problems are that pro-bike/walk policies have been implemented haphazardly and that drivers blithely ignore them, says University of Maryland Public Policy Professor John Short. As he writes in, many bike lanes and pedestrian zones are too short and/ or disconnected. Moreover, “even in the best of times, cars and trucks are not good at sharing the road.” It doesn’t help that the actors are unequally armed. “Drivers are operating fast-moving lethal weapons,” Short notes, “and they are encased in a protective shield.”

Even in the best of times, cars and trucks are not good at sharing the road.

A positive note, however, is that experts at least agree on the causes of crashes. Excessive speed is nemesis number one: according to the ITF, it causes 20–30 per cent of road deaths. By the way, the modifier ‘excessive’ should never be omitted: the danger is not absolute speed as such, but speed that is inappropriate to the conditions. In fact, the fastest roads are the safest. As the ITF reports, “The risk of dying on motorways is between two to six times smaller than on the whole [road] network.” The other root cause of wrecks is human error, usually lack of attention. The prime culprit in this regard is alcohol, followed by drugs, smartphones, rubbernecks and other distractions.

Road Safety statistics

Experts also agree on three tried-and-true prevention strategies: helmets, seatbelts and child restraints. Here, Argentina serves as a poster child. Between 2008 and 2013, the South American country boosted motorcycle helmet and seatbelt use by 20 per cent and 40 per cent respectively, while cutting drunk driving by 50 per cent. The result: a 10 per cent reduction in road deaths – saving 700 lives per year.

“Boosting road safety is not rocket science,” says Norbert Ruecker, an Economics and Next Generation analyst at Julius Baer. “It’s following simple principles that prevent collisions and minimise damage.”

Road Safety initiatives

Taking it to the streets
Making roads safer is, of course, easier said than done. The right laws need to be in place. Those laws must be properly enforced. And all that costs money (although experts uniformly say that the return well outstrips the investment). A good place to start being safer is in people’s minds. Crashes are not accidents, fatalities are not fate. They are preventable losses.

Global initiatives are underway. In 2015, the United Nations targeted a 50 per cent cut in road deaths as one of its ‘Sustainable Development Goals’. Also that year, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the international association of motoring and motor racing, convened a High Level Panel for Road Safety. Along with heavyweights from industry and politics as well as safety experts, the FIA Panel has 25 ambassadors – high-profile sportspeople and entertainers – to spread the safety message world wide. In 2017, the ITF published a Marrakech Declaration, whereby 40 countries pledged to improve the collection and analysis of road safety data.

Julius Baer has joined one of the FIA’s initiatives: the Child Safety Global Programme, which aims to bridge one of safety’s poverty gaps. Countries such as Belarus and Moldova mandate child restraints, but less than half of children use them. The reason: child seats are too expensive for lower-income families. This initiative will collect some of the thousands on thousands of usable seats in Western Europe that are sitting in storage because children they protected have outgrown them, and deliver them to Eastern Europe. Pilot testing has shown high participation and enthusiasm.

We need to think of cities as shared spaces with slower traffic, and see neighbourhood streets as places to live and share, not just to drive through at high speed.

Cities are also taking action. With programmes such as Vision Zero and EuroRAP, they are pushing the same agenda as their global counterparts and additionally focusing on ‘system design’: how roads are laid out and traffic is regulated. Ultimately, this will bring the most benefits, but the bar is high. “It will require not only re-engineering urban traffic, but also reimagining our cities,” says Professor Short. “We need to think of them as shared spaces with slower traffic, and see neighbourhood streets as places to live in and share, not just to drive through at high speed.”

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