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Death on the roads is an epidemic: better jobs for transport workers is part of the cure.

Brendan Martin, 31 March 2014

At the launch of a new World Bank report on Transport for Health today I heard an interesting story about a Portuguese truck driver stopped by the police soon after emerging from the Channel Tunnel into England.

The story goes that he thanked the police for taking him into custody because then at least he would get a good night’s sleep in the cells!

I don’t care it the story’s apocryphal, because it certainly speaks to a larger truth: that the terms on which many commercial drivers of freight and passengers are employed is a hazard to themselves and everyone else on the roads.

Unfortunately, that story was shared with me by one of the speakers after the seminar, rather than being part of one of their presentations.

I don’t blame them for that -- it was an impressive line-up of experts -- but it did underline that if the development community is going to take road safety more seriously they will have to start taking the rights, wellbeing and voice of transport workers more seriously too.

Transport for Health is published by the World Bank’s Global Road Safety Facility (GRSF) and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, and the launch seminar was at London’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

It is full of killer facts -- literally -- and makes a strong case that road safety is a key issue in international economic and social development. Yet it still begs more questions than it answers.

The report finds that more than 1.5 million people die as a result of motorised road transport each year. That’s more than either HIV, TB or malaria, and although it includes an estimate for deaths from road traffic pollution it is crashes that account for more than 90 per cent of the total.

Broadly speaking, moreover, the poorer the country the larger the per capita proportion of road crash deaths, and the poorer the person the more likely to be one of them.

It was the ODI’s executive director, Kevin Watkins, who came closest to relating the carnage to the terms on which commercial drivers are employed. Referring to his visit to a Nairobi school, he said he had asked the children how many of them had lost a family member in a road crash, and 10 or 15 per cent put their hands up.

The cause was mainly minibus taxis, he added, although it is not only their staff and passengers who die as a result. The report shows that 30 per cent of road crash fatalities are pedestrians, rising to 50 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa.

“And it’s only getting worse,” said Mark Shotten of the GRSF, describing the scale of road crashes as “a crisis in the here and now” and stressing the need for a “multisectoral framework” and a “safe system approach”.

That’s good news -- depending on what it means. If it fails to take account of the linkages between how transport workers are employed and their driving behaviour a big piece of the picture will be excluded.

The drive to include road safety in the post-2015 development agenda has been led, to its great credit, by the FIA Foundation, whose executive director Saul Billingsley asked in response to the challenge expressed in the report: “What are we going to do about it?”

Welcoming the fact that the report’s foreword is written by World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, Billingsley said that level of status for the issue had to be “translated into action”, with more funding for GRSF and a “paradigm change” to “reverse the hierarchy” and put pedestrians and cyclists first.

“The future is about a holistic approach”, said Mark Shotten, and he’s right, of course. But that must include employment policy and practice.

As long as working people are seen as a cost to development rather than its agents, institutions such as the World Bank will be causing more road deaths from one desk while counting the growing toll at another.

See also:

Quality Public Transport, Public World's project with the International Transport Workers Federation.

Decent Development, Public World's project to promote good jobs in development programmes.

Mobilising informal economy workers for urban resilience -- blog post by Bradley Cleveland.



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