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Barry Sheerman: Every road death is an individual tragedy

What more can be done to improve road safety around the world?
What more can be done to improve road safety around the world?
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NOT many people realise this, but 3,500 homes will today have a knock on the door, and a policewoman or policeman will say to the person who opens the door that their son, daughter, mum, dad, uncle or aunt is dead.

Some 3,500 people die on the roads globally every day. That is, at a conservative estimate, 1.3 million people dying on the road on this planet of ours each year. That is a disgraceful number.

According to the World Health Organisation, road accidents are the 10th leading cause of death globally and they are forecast to be the seventh biggest cause of death by 2030. But unlike natural disasters or disease, this is a human-made problem and every one of these deaths is avoidable – every one of them. If road deaths carry on at the present level, more people will die in the 21st century on the roads than died in all the wars of the 20th century. That is a chilling statistic.

In 2016, 181,384 casualties on Britain’s roads were recorded. There were 1,792 fatalities – that is 1,792 knocks on the door. Please let us use that all the time – the knock on the door, the chilling moment when someone is told that a member of their family has died. The long-term trend in the numbers of people killed and injured in road accidents has been declining, but the decline has stalled since 2011, and in 2016 we actually had an increase.

It is important that the United Nations now has road safety as one of its sustainable development goals. Why is that? We know that the death of a member of a family in the developing world usually means that family unit lurching into poverty, or, if left with a long-term disability, it drags the family down because it affects their ability to live a decent life.

In relation to the countries that we have knowledge of, we probably have an under-estimate of the numbers of people dying. I was in Beijing not many months ago, and an interesting fact is that, mysteriously, as soon as the United Nations introduced a five per cent reduction target, a five per cent reduction started appearing every year in the Chinese statistics. I am saying that the stats may be worse even than we are arguing today.

In September 2015, at a UN Heads of Government summit, the UK accepted a sustainable development goal target to halve road deaths by 2020. That was welcomed, but it was rather paradoxical, as our Government has failed to adopt a target for the UK since 2010.

Targets are not a solution, but they do indicate ambition and commitment, and they influence where we put the resources. When the Government has targets for issues such as reducing suicides, hospital waiting times and net migration, it is hard to see the logic for not having an accident death reduction goal as well.

Furthermore using our road safety experience, research and knowledge to help people around the world is one of the best investments we can make in helping a developing country at the moment.

Road crashes are the number one killer of young Africans aged between 15 and 29. Certain countries leap off the page, such as Tanzania and South Africa, because they are well above where they should be. Much of this has a heartbreaking real cost.

Road crashes frequently kill or injure household breadwinners, causing loss of income, increased costs – such as those of caring for a disabled victim – and tipping people into deepest poverty.

The Overseas Development Institute report Securing Safe Roads contained in-depth analysis in three cities – Nairobi, Mumbai and Bogota.

That analysis found that it is the poorest sections of society that bear the brunt of traffic-related injuries and deaths, and that politicians and the public tend to blame individual road users for collisions, rather than policy makers or planners.

As such, we need to support the development of a road accident strategy across the world. We must also 
produce, in every country, a dedicated road safety plan with short, medium 
and long-term objectives.

We know the answers. We can stop these 1.3 million deaths. We can reduce them dramatically if we work together on the basis of good laws that are enforced fairly and squarely across every country that we work with. We have an enormous opportunity to save lives, communities and families. Let’s go for it!

Barry Sheerman is the Labour MP for Huddersfield. He spoke in a Parliamentary debate on road safety – this is an edited version.