Car-nage: We need a global campaign for road safety, but not one controlled by the motor industry.

By this means Svejk attempts to persuade the authorities that he is doing everything he can to get to the front, even if, to his enormous regret, his rheumatism prevents him from having his brains blown out. By noisily volunteering to subject themselves to stricter standards, the corporations try to pre-empt the rules which might otherwise have been imposed on them. This, they hope, will allow them to participate only when and how they see fit.

Death and injury on the roads is the world’s most neglected public health issue. Almost as many people die in road accidents – 1.2 million a year – as are killed by malaria or tuberculosis. Around 50 million are injured. Some 85% of these accidents take place in developing countries. The poor get hurt much more often than the rich, as they walk or cycle or travel in overloaded buses. The highest death rate is among children walking on the roads(1).

The problem is likely to become much worse. By 2020, according to the World Bank, deaths from road accidents are likely to fall by 28% in rich nations, but to rise by 83% in poorer ones(3). By 2030, they will overtake the deaths caused by malaria(4). But while $1.9bn of foreign aid will be spent on tackling malaria over the next five years, the annual global aid budget for road safety is less than $10m(5).

In 1999, at the invitation of the World Bank, the motor and oil companies joined something called the Global Road Safety Partnership. It was supposed to bring together “governments and governmental agencies, the private sector and civil society organisations”(6). But its executive committee contains no one from a civil society organisation and only two representatives of government. BP, Total, DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, Michelin and Volvo, however, are all represented(7).

Instead, the Global Road Safety Partnership emphasised better training for drivers and better safety education for children. These measures do not interfere with the commercial interests of the transport industry. Neither, according to peer-reviewed papers Professor Roberts cites, do they work(10).

It was established by the Fdration Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) Foundation, which is run by motoring and motor sports associations. Of the eight commissioners, one is an executive of General Motors; one runs the Bridgestone Tyre Corporation; one is a trustee of the FIA Foundation; one is chairman of the FIA Foundation and a president of the Automobile Club of Italy; and one is Michael Schumacher(12). The Commission’s secretary is the director-general of the FIA Foundation.

Most importantly, it calls for the developing nations to follow the path taken by richer countries in reducing deaths and injuries. But at no point does it mention that much of this reduction was the result of cyclists and pedestrians being driven off the roads. This is a much bigger issue for poor nations – where the great majority of people who use roads do not own cars – than for rich ones. Is this the vision: that the space now used by pedestrians and cyclists and oxcarts and rickshaws is surrendered to car drivers? If so, it might reduce fatalities, but it would also represent a classic act of enclosure, through which the rich are able to secure the resources of the poor.

1. All these facts come from Commission for Global Road Safety, June 2006. Make Roads Safe: a new priority for sustainable development. http://www.makeroadssafe.org/documents/make_roads_safe_low_res.pdf

3. E. Kropits and M. Cropper, 2003. Traffic Fatalities and Economic Growth. Cited by the Commission for Global Road Safety, ibid.

5. Commission for Global Road Safety, ibid.

7. Global Road Safety Partnership, no date. Executive Committee. http://www.grsproadsafety.org/?pageid=130&typeid=2

9. Ian Roberts, pers comm.

11. Michael Schumacher, 23rd April 2007. One every 30 seconds. The Guardian.

13. Commission for Global Road Safety, ibid.

Published in the Guardian 15th May 2007

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