By Daniel Mwamba
Former United States President John F Kennedy made the case that networks of roads are essential in promoting economic prosperity when he said, Our wealth did not create our transport infrastructure; it is our transport infrastructure which created our wealth.
However, the enormous benefits of major road networks do not come without costs. One of the most significant and distressing aspects of road transport is the enormous level of trauma that occurs with their use.
It is well documented that the road infrastructure play a crucial role in reducing the number of people killed or injured on the road. Well-designed roads can help people use roads safely and minimise the risk that an accident will occur. When an accident does happen, protective road infrastructure can mean the difference between life and death.
Unfortunately the public tend to talk about road safety almost exclusively in terms of the way we behave on the roads as drivers, pedestrians or cyclists. After all, over 90% of road casualties start with an error.
But to err is human. In rail and air safety it is assumed that even the best trained pilot or driver will make mistakes. The systems that surround the human being are designed to make errors unlikely and to ensure that the consequences of mistakes are not fatal.
On the roads, simple predictable everyday human errors routinely result in a death sentence.
In the last decade over 15,000 people have been killed and accidents fatalities have increased by over 100% in Zambia. Almost 2,000 people are recorded killed annually, while another 5,000 live with road accidents. The majority of victims of accident casualties are usually vulnerable road users – pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists (60%) which often rise up to 70%. 11% of the road accident victims are children under the age of 16 who are killed while walking to and from school.
According to the United Nations, road accidents cost Zambia between 2 – 7 % of our entire GDP with costs falling on families, businesses, health services, permanent disability, unemployment, insurance payouts others is diffuse and not well understood. This amount is, for example, worth more than we spend on the education budget. Data constraints and widespread under reporting of accidents prevent understanding the real magnitudes of this problem.
While the new roads are bringing new opportunities for development, for many, they bring death. These new roads are almost always built to expect greater volumes of traffic and higher speeds because this reduce congestion and supports national macroeconomic goals. This does not need to increase the likelihood of accidents and serious injury although it almost always will if these roads are not restricted to through-traffic, if linear settlements are not avoided and there is not first class provision for pedestrians, cyclists and other vulnerable road users.
Access to new roads by pedestrian, cyclists and motorcyclists is often not provided in a way that offers protection or priority to these road users and the risk of serious accidents increases dramatically. It is of paramount importance that roads built to help eradicate poverty are built to protect life.
The Zambian Road Safety Trust (ZRST) is awake to the fact that the government is preparing its road safety strategy beyond 2015, I would like to proposes how we can now turn attention to the safety features built into our new roads.
My view is that we can quickly prevent around one-third of total deaths and serious injuries by detailed attention to safe road design alone. We can deliver this through a formal systematic ‘Safe Road Programme’ which targets the road safety deficiencies on our township and trunk roads. This programme must be delivered by all local authorities and the Road Development Agency (RDA) but there is an onus on government to put the enabling framework in place.
A ‘Safe Road Programme’ could save 10,000 deaths and serious injuries a year. The total savings in crash costs from the programme would reduce the waste incurred on the GDP. The programme should win wide support, not just because it saves lives and disabling injuries, but because it is quick, certain, and affordable with an investment return that few, if any other programmes, can match.
As the government reviews its road safety strategy for the period beyond 2015, let’s look at how leading countries have implemented a safe road design. A Safe Road Programme needs to be central to the next road safety strategy to ensure that we cut down the number of road fatalities by 50% by 2020 in accordance with the decade of action goes.
In the late 1990s, Sweden and the Netherlands fundamentally reappraised their safety strategies with their ‘Vision Zero’ and ‘sustainable safety’ policies. There was recognition that, if the goal is that using the road is to be no more risky than rail, air or any other normal activity in daily life, a strategy based on seeking to squeeze out normal human error will be no more successful in future than it has been in the past. A ‘safe road system’ means taking action on safe driving, safe vehicles and safe roads together.
The policies of the leading countries in road safety may be too philosophical and advanced for a developing country like ours. Regardless, the road safety strategy analysis of leading countries has recognised for years that the majority of road casualty savings needs to come from safer road infrastructure.
The Zambian Road Safety Trust comparative research has pointed to the need for action to improve safety features on all the newly developed and expanded roads across the country on which many lives have been lost thus far.
The lack of interest by our engineers and slower response by the government to act on development of safe roads may simply reflect less successful road safety delivery rather than less successful philosophy.
It is nonetheless undeniable that the leading countries in road safety have drawn design inspiration from the challenges of their philosophy, and their engineers have created whole new safer road types and design codes for ‘self-explaining’ and ‘forgiving roads’.
Human errors only kill when the consequences are high energy impacts. Safe road design which provides ‘self-explaining roads’ that make errors in reading the road unlikely. ‘Forgiving roads’ provide protection like pedestrian refuges, sheltered turning bays and safety fencing which prevent an everyday mistake becoming fatal. Routine, predictable deaths and serious injuries should not happen when road users are obeying the rules of the road.
A national Safe Road Programme alone even without initiatives on human behaviour could reduce deaths and serious injuries by a third.
The social and economic rates of return from a Safe Road Programme are so high, the costs are so affordable, that the only rational question is how the programme can be mobilised to deliver these savings as quickly as possible.
Road accidents are overwhelmingly caused by human failings, but the greatest untapped potential to prevent death and injury is through the roads themselves. In terms of accident severity, road condition is the single most lethal contributing factor, ahead of speeding, alcohol or non-use of seat belts.
The Author is Chairman for the Zambian Road Safety Trust (ZRST)
22nd August 2015