Since taking the helm of the FIA in 2009, Jean Todt has made road safety a high priority for the Federation. And quite rightly so, says Kate Walker.
While the president has been criticised for his efforts by many of those who feel Formula 1 should be the beneficiary of his full attention, few of those who travel with the F1 circus would deny that road safety standards around the world are more of a privilege than the right they should be.
In recent years spent travelling for grands prix I have seen dried gourds used in place of motorcycle crash helmets; drivers electing to take the wrong route around a busy roundabout to reach the furthest exit; and convoys of vehicles driving the wrong way down motorways at night, and without lights. While these infractions are illegal in much of the world, in some countries they are common practice.
As a consequence, it is no surprise that global road safety statistics are horrifying: 1.3 million people per year die on the world’s roads. Among those deaths can be counted 500 children dying each day, or one child every three minutes. Road traffic accidents are the world’s eighth highest cause of death, and the leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 29.
A curable pandemic
When SARS hit the headlines in 2003, it led to 8,098 deaths around the world, and acres of media coverage. Avian flu has killed just over 200 people since the first recorded case in 1997, while the 2009 swine flu epidemic has been linked to 203,000 deaths. These medical epidemics have led to research efforts and global cooperation to stem the spread of disease, but the vastly more fatal pandemic of deaths on the road has been accepted by the world at large as a battle we are incapable of winning.
Writing this week on the Huffington Post website, Todt laid out his road safety agenda and the challenges currently being faced by those agencies fighting to improve road safety standards around the world. According to the FIA president, we are at serious risk of failing to hit the targets set out by the United Nations as we reach the midpoint of their declared Decade of Action for Road Safety.
In his call to arms, Todt highlights the need to use the global platform the UN enjoys to “create a focal point in terms of mobilizing the road safety community, world leaders and governments to fight for safer roads, safer vehicles and better driving rules.”
He adds: “The tools to achieve all this are already at hand. Over the past decades, under the auspices of UNECE, the United Nations has developed 58 conventions and agreements in relation to international transport. Many of them govern a huge variety of road safety areas, such as traffic rules, the standardization of road signs and signals as well as vehicle standards.
“These legal instruments are in place: we know how to build safer vehicles; we know how to build safe roads; we know the benefits of advanced and consistent traffic rules and road signs in making people use roads safer still.”
Time for public pressure for change
The issue is not that the world is ill-equipped to make the necessary changes to improve road safety standards around the world. The problem is that we have become inured to road deaths, and have accepted that fatalities are a natural consequence of our reliance on automotive transport.
But that attitude can – and should – change. By applying public pressure on our governments we can enforce a shift in attitude that will in turn affect regulation. Where once drunk driving was par for the course, a change in public opinion has improved both legislation and behaviour alike – few people would now consider it acceptable practice to get behind the wheel at the end of a night out.
Funding for road safety programmes in developing countries – home to 91 percent of the world’s road deaths – can be sourced by applying existing models to the current pandemic. As such, Todt suggested “the establishment of a financing mechanism based on the model of UNITAID and the contribution from plane tickets".
“This would take the form of marginal contribution on sales related to the automotive sector", he said. "Such a mechanism could rapidly generate extensive funding, which could then be poured into a global UN Fund for Road Safety to help developing countries face the challenges of road safety.”
The combination of advocacy, lobbying, and improved funding can help tackle road traffic fatalities on local, national, and global levels.
But the first step is getting the public at large on side, making improved road safety standards as big a priority for the world’s governments as battling the likes of avian flu, swine flu, and SARS were in their day.
Todt’s efforts to publicise the pandemic have been an excellent first step. The next step is for people to work together to get the message across on a global level.