How F1's safety crusade can save lives on the road today

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What does driving flat-out on racetracks have to do with saving lives on the roads of our planet? Answer: A lot more than you think.

No less than 1.3million people die in road accidents every year. Think about that. Think how much you hear on the news about a plane crash, when perhaps 130 people sadly lose their lives. But then multiple that by 10,000… Every. Single. Year.

It's a problem that the FIA, not only motorsport's governing body but responsible for all global motoring matters through its international network of member clubs, is tackling.

In April, FIA president Jean Todt was appointed United Nations special envoy for road safety by secretary general Ban Ki-moon. It's a reflection on all Todt's hard work with his members on road safety campaigns, and he is ramping up efforts this week in a big event in Mexico City – in association with another high-profile road-safety advocate who is based there, Carlos Slim.

"We have developed safety in motor racing for decades, and a lot can be applied on a road car," says Todt. "Our organization has a very strong responsibility in assisting road safety around the world.

"Road accidents are one of the worst pandemics in society, like malaria, tuberculosis, HIV Aids or Ebola. All those have been properly assessed, even if we don't have total solutions.

"In terms of reducing road accidents, it's around education, it's around law enforcement, it's around road infrastructures – so we know what to do. We have the prescription of what to do. We needed to take bigger leadership."

Already the campaigns have involved Formula 1's leading lights, supporting the FIA's initiatives to raise awareness of road safety.

"Of course, the youth looks up to these racing driver heroes," adds Todt. "So if they say: 'don't drink if you drive' or 'put your safety belt on' or 'don't text when you drive' or 'obey the speed limits' – this is very helpful.

"So we have a world-wide preventative programme, with global ambassadors like racing drivers, football players, and tennis guys like Rafa Nadal."

Taking a leaf from F1's history

One of Todt's many campaigners is two-time Formula 1 world champion and Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi. He sees a lot of comparisons to his years in F1 – some of the most deadly times in the sport.

"We can use the same example of racing in the late 1960s and '70s – the worst years, in my opinion – before we improved the cars, the racetracks, the safety teams and drivers equipment," says Fittipaldi. "In parallel to racing, we can do a lot for a road-safety campaign for the streets.

"When you think about how we improved things back then, by raising the safety standards on the racetracks, and how it can help the FIA with road safety for the family cars, for instance the type of barriers we have on the motorways. What the FIA is doing globally, will pay off and be a big help."

Thinking globally, acting locally

One of the main issues the FIA has to address is the different needs of the various countries. With over 200 states recognized by the United Nations, that's a lot of roads to cover…

"We are working with all clubs and countries," says Todt. "Of course, the problems in France and the UK – which are well structured – are completely different to those in India, or Myanmar, or in Vietnam.

"In the UK, a developed country, the number of fatal accident has decreased by a factor of three. It's like time on a circuit. If the time you want is 1m20s, if you have 1m25s you have a lot to find but it's easier. If it's 1m20.2s, that last 0.2s is very hard to find, which is the situation in the UK now.

"In France there was 18,000 deaths each year and now it is just 3,000. I say 'just' – but that is still 3,000 lives, so still work to be done.

"But in developing countries, it's a different story: the numbers are much higher, there no education, there is no enforcement because there is corruption and no road infrastructure. Here, we need to help."

Making a difference in Mexico

One of the world's top businessmen, Carlos Slim, is another influential figure who is taking a key role in the campaign.

He believes motorsport is "a laboratory of great innovations that benefit all in the streets, especially innovations in road safety technology innovations and with the environment."

Slim's 'Drivers for Road Safety' programme in Mexico now includes more than 60 certified racing drivers, followed by more than 80,000 students and visits locations all around Mexico handing out flyers with important road-safety instructions.

"We have also worked intensively with such important organizations as the Mexican Red Cross, the Mexican Association of Insurance Institutions, which has helped us to better understand the statistical data of accidents, and many other organizations as well. But the most unfortunate thing is that up to 90 per cent could have been avoided with accident-prevention schemes.

"Therefore, the FIA, established its golden rules – the rules are aimed at preventing accidents, rules we share in all the different structures that make up the organization globally."

Fittipaldi campaigns in Brazil

Fittipaldi, who will speak at the huge event in Mexico City on Friday, knows all about the problems in his native Brazil too.

"In Brazil, there are 40-45,000 people killed a year, close to 500,000 badly injured – probably more," he says. "We need more infrastructure, and I think we have to follow one of the best systems in the world, which is in Britain. There, you see the respect to other drivers and being disciplined in traffic.

"In Brazil, I would say many of the cars are small, the cheapest you can buy. They don't have airbags, they would never pass a crash test, and the manufacturers still sell them. And we are starting to change this.

"We are trying to update Latin-America standards to the same as in Europe, but you need four or five years for the cars to improve, to be going in the stronger direction.

"The car industry, they don't like us, it's an expensive problem for them. It's just like racing, we are fighting just as we did in the '60s and '70s to make things safer. It will take cost, and some time, but we are doing it.

"I want to see Brazil, and the rest of Latin-America, do the same as MIRA in Britain. So we have an independent controller to make the cars safer, without any influence from car manufacturers."

Taking the fight forwards

Following the event in Mexico this week, a new road-safety initiative will be launched by the secretary general of the UN in New York later this month, in which Slim and fellow influential figures are involved.

"The FIA is a very global organization," states Todt. "One is motorsport, we are the regulator, and the other is our road-car side. We're a very unique organization. We needed to reinforce and build more synergy between both sides.

"Everyone with whom I speak on this subject are very supportive – ambassadors and experts alike. Education is a matter of time. Road safety affects every individual in the world."

Fittipaldi acknowledges: "It's a big problem, and there's a need to improve. In 15 years from now, in 2030, the world's car population will double. They are building 27 million cars in China alone, per year! The numbers are scary for the future.

"I think motorsport can help a lot road safety for the future, because we have all this experience."

Look out for a hard-hitting global television advert about road safety relating to children around the world that the FIA has produced with top film director Luc Besson.

It's a sobering thought for the next step on a long journey.

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Article type Special feature
Tags carlos slim, fia, jean todt, road safety