Opening remarks at the World Youth Assembly for Road Safety
Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization
Madam Chair, Mr Director-General of the UN Office, Mr Vice-President of the European Commission in Charge of Transport, Mr Executive Secretary of UNECE, youth delegates, ladies and gentlemen,
Welcome to this World Youth Assembly for Road Safety.
Slightly more than a century ago, in the years between 1896 and 1899, motor vehicles caused three deaths worldwide: two in the United Kingdom and one in the United States of America.
In 1962, when WHO issued its first report on road safety, the global estimated number of people killed in road traffic crashes had risen to well over 100,000 per year. The vast majority of these deaths occurred in the more highly industrialized countries, where use of motor vehicles had been steadily rising.
That report made road safety a priority concern for public health for two main reasons. First, apart from the tragic loss of life, the costs of trauma care and rehabilitation for injured survivors placed an enormous burden on health services.
Second, prevention of morbidity and mortality is a traditional priority for public health, and most of these deaths and injuries were considered fully preventable.
Today, an estimated 1.2 million people lose their lives every year as a result of road traffic crashes. Many millions more are injured.
Even more alarming for public health is the dramatic shift in the demographic burden. Well over 90% of these deaths are now occurring in low- and middle-income countries.
The shift of this burden has made deaths and injuries from road traffic crashes a major issue for development. Many developing countries are undergoing modernization at a pace that far outstrips the capacity of infrastructures to provide essential support. We see this in sprawling urban shantytowns, and we see this on the roads.
As migration to urban areas continues, more and more people are using roads. As incomes rise, more and more people are purchasing cars.
Unfortunately, the planning of road transport systems and of urban development has not accommodated the needs of all road users.
Pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists frequently share congested roads with cars and overloaded buses and trucks. High-speed roads may pass through residential areas, where pedestrian crosswalks have not been constructed and children have no safe recreational areas for play.
Roads are frequently not designed for high-speed traffic. Regulations, such as those governing speed, permissible blood levels of alcohol, seatbelts, helmets, and the issuing of drivers’ licenses, are often either insufficient or poorly enforced.
The lack of adequate emergency and trauma care further compounds the problem, making travel on the roads all the more deadly.
In low- and middle-income countries, the pattern of deaths and injuries varies markedly from that seen in wealthy countries. In affluent nations, the drivers and passengers of cars account for the majority of road traffic deaths.
Elsewhere, those most vulnerable are children playing on the street, young pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, novice drivers, and passengers using public transport.
These groups often come from the poorer segments of society. For them, the loss of the family breadwinner, the costs of a funeral or of hospital care and rehabilitation, can push entire families below the poverty line for several generations.
The large number of deaths and injuries in these vulnerable groups joins the persistent problem of infectious diseases and the steady rise of chronic diseases to give many developing countries a triple burden – a third major cause of preventable morbidity and mortality.
Hazards on the roads cost low- and middle-income countries enormous amounts of money. For many of these countries, the costs incurred by road collisions match or surpass the value of funds received as international development aid.
This week, as part of the first United Nations Global Road Safety Week, WHO is launching two publications. The first is a report on Youth and Road Safety.
This report shows that road crashes have become the leading cause of death, worldwide, for young people in the age range of 10 to 24 years. The report notes that the majority of these crashes are both predictable and preventable.
It sets out a series of proven measures, such as lower blood alcohol limits for young drivers, programmes of graduated licenses, mandatory seatbelt use, and clothing that enhances the visibility of pedestrians. In addition, it advocates for safer travel routes, safer vehicles, and play areas for children
A large body of evidence demonstrates the effectiveness of these measures. They need to be introduced, as a matter of urgency, in low- and middle-income countries.
Each one of the yearly 1.2 million deaths from road traffic crashes is a personal tragedy. No family or group of friends is ever prepared for the news of a sudden and violent death. These deaths leave psychological scars that can last a lifetime.
This week, WHO is also issuing a collection of personal stories from people who have experienced these tragedies. These are the voices of crash victims and their families.
Titled Faces behind the Figures, these first-hand stories provide a moving account of personal tragedies multiplied many hundreds of thousands of times the world over, but now most especially in the developing world.
Again, these stories vividly illustrate a reality that must compel us to act: the majority of these personal tragedies could have been prevented.
This situation is unacceptable.
The developing world can ill afford a third burden of preventable morbidity and mortality. Families and friends do not need these sudden – and costly – tragedies disrupting their lives.
Health services are ill-equipped to cope with increasing numbers of people needing emergency transport, trauma care, and often many years of rehabilitation.
We know what needs to be done to prevent these crashes, to reduce this unacceptable burden.
Many events have been organized to mark this first week devoted to global road safety. I want to thank our sister UN agencies and, in particular, the UN Economic Commission for Europe and the other regional commissions, for their collaboration. It provides an excellent example of what partnerships can achieve.
Young road users have been selected as the focus, and I find this appropriate. You have great energy and persuasive power. These qualities give you a leading role in addressing what we now know is the biggest killer, worldwide, of people aged 10 to 24 years.
I congratulate the youth leaders who are present today. I hope that you will take the Youth Declaration for Road Safety home with you and use it to convince your politicians, media, and other partners to make road safety a priority.
I wish you all the best success for this Youth Assembly, and look forward with great interest to the outcome.