In partnership with the Road Safety Fund, the Guardian's Global Road Safety in Focus series offers in depth explorations of road safety issues from around the world. In a recent article, the focus was placed on Latin America and the rising costs of road traffic crashes. We feature their article here.
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The family of Susana Suárez, a 35-year-old Venezuelan dentist, are still in shock over her death in a traffic accident in May. She and a friend were killed on their way back from the beach, two more of the 130,000 victims who died on Latin America's roads in 2013.
It was not the first time that a vehicle fell into the river from that bridge, near the town of Tucaras in the western state of Falcón. On a poorly lit, badly paved and inadequately signalled spot along the road, even a semi-trailer truck fell in once, says Suárez – "where there is a bridge with a weak railing".
Added to the 130,000 casualties are "6 million people who are injured, including hundreds of thousands who are left with a permanent disability," Verónica Raffo, a senior infrastructure specialist at the World Bank, says.
There are 19.2 road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants in Latin America – "more than three times the rate of some European countries," says Raffo, citing the World Health Organisation's (WHO) global status report on road safety 2013. Africa, with 24 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants, and the Middle East-North Africa, with 21 per 100,000, are the other regions losing the most lives to traffic accidents. In South America, the rate is 21 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Bernardo Baranda, Latin America director for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, told IPS from Mexico City that the lack of road safety remained a major public health problem. "Aside from the family and emotional tragedies, the most productive people are dying," Baranda says. "These aren't accidents, they are preventable occurrences."
There has been rapid motorization in South America.
In March 2010, the countries of Latin America signed the UN resolution proclaiming 2011-20 the decade of action for road safety.The governments of more than 100 countries have committed to cutting down road deaths and injuries, with the aim of reducing by half the predicted increase in global road deaths by 2020. The goal is to save 5 million lives and $5bn in costs.
In Latin America, the projection was 30 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, owing to the rise in the number of vehicles and the further decline in road safety, and the commitment is to bring the rate down to 15 per 100,000. "But in many countries, traffic accidents are on the rise, and few have managed to stabilise or reduce the number of victims," Raffo says.
Argentina, Chile and Uruguay have achieved good results, thanks to "strong political leadership and institutional changes to improve administration and management", she adds.Five pillars are needed to combat road accidents, according to Raffo. The first is to improve institutions. In most countries, responsibility is dispersed and there is a lack of adequate institutions, she says
Argentina is one model to be followed. In 2008, it created the National Road Safety Agency, with an observatory that monitors policies, campaigns, strategies and results; this has led to significant improvements.
Colombia ended 2013 with the approval of a similar agency, in a country where road accidents represent the second most frequent cause of violent death, according to the World Bank.The Bank and regional institutions report that the countries where traffic accidents have increased since 2011 are Bolivia, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
In the latter two, the increase was as high as 40%, in large part due to accidents involving motorcycles, a vehicle that is in dangerous expansion and is even used by parents to transport children. Pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists account for 70% of the victims of urban road accidents.
"Working on road safety means working on equality, because the lack of safety mainly affects the most vulnerable users, who are also the most vulnerable segments of society," says Raffo. "The second pillar is safe infrastructure, roads and urban mobility; the third is safe vehicles and drivers; the fourth is educational and awareness-raising policies; and the fifth is a key issue: post-accident response, that so many lives depend on.
"These five pillars make up the focus of a safe system, which is accompanied by the concept of shared responsibility. The state leads and co-ordinates, the drivers obey the rules, car makers and insurance agencies put a priority on safety, and civil society works to bring about changes in behaviour."
Baranda, meanwhile, is calling for "reliable data, reduced speeds, measures to fight drunk driving, stricter law enforcement, and prevention through education"."A multisectoral strategy is needed, with very clear goals. Actions must be more forceful," he adds.
One piece of good news was the creation of the Ibero-American Road Safety Observatory, which Raffo and other experts see as fundamental for the region to have monitoring, management of data, indicators and policies, and a platform for sharing successful experiences.Although the first three years of the decade have not provided grounds for optimism, the evidence shows there are some countries that have brought extremely high road fatality rates down, Raffo says.
"We have to stop holding the fatalistic view that because the region grew economically and the number of motor vehicles has increased as a result, the number of deaths has gone up," she adds. "Things don't have to be this way, it's possible to change: Argentina and others show it's possible."
Besides, developing countries "lose 1-3% of GDP [to road accidents], in some cases up to 4-5%; that's an extremely high cost," she says.