A blog from Brasilia

Mary Williams OBE, the founder and chief executive of Brake marks the start of Road Safety Week, and offers this unique, international perspective on the relationship between sustainability and road safety.

Brasilia, the seat of government in Brazil, is not known for its sustainable or safe transport for people on foot and bicycles. Built in the 1950s, it was presumed that the car would be king forever; fast multi-lane highways with no footpaths or cycle paths dominate the urban landscape. It's simply not a place where you walk.

Yet this city hosted this month a vital gathering of more than 2,000 leading road safety professionals from around the globe to discuss the imperative need to implement road safety, to save more than 1.25 million lives a year, and to reduce the very significant contribution road traffic makes to C02 emissions.

There are many agendas within which road safety fits. It is an equity issue; the most deprived and vulnerable, many in the poorest countries – particularly children and the young – are most likely to die or suffer life-changing injury. In fact, roads are the number one killer of youth globally. It is a health issue: there are rising deaths from exhaust particulate-related diseases but also obesity, diabetes and heart conditions due to inactivity through over-use of cars. It is a community issue: a car-obsessed culture separates and isolates people, who drive from their homes, to their schools, to their work. However, above all else it is a sustainability issue, which is the focus of Brake's Road Safety Week this year in the UK. Climate change dictates that we must urgently reduce traffic; and by doing so we save lives. This is why it is so welcome that the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals, launched this year, include a goal to halve deaths and injuries from road crashes by 2020.

To many in the professional road safety community, the goals appear eminently unachievable, particularly bearing in mind exponential population growth, economic growth in low and middle income countries, and consequential road and road traffic growth. Where there are roads, there are vehicles, there are deaths.

Yet with growth come opportunities. Opportunities for us to build exciting traffic-free cities, where people on foot and bicycles have priority and motorised traffic is segregated and travels no faster than 20mph / 30kph. Cities where it is understood that a bicycle is a time-efficient, easy, pollution-free mode of transport; the mode of choice for most people. Cities where those who cannot walk or cycle easily have fantastic access to publicly-funded rapid transit systems. Cities where the poorest people can be mobile and get to jobs and facilities without car ownership.

There are also opportunities globally to harness developments in technology to radically decrease deaths in vehicles on the open road. In particular, we can use our knowledge of how to build safer vehicles with the best crash protection features, and safer roads within a "safe systems" approach (which, for example, separates lanes using barriers, provides safer light-controlled crossing places for pedestrians, and has separate paths for cyclists). We know that drivers make mistakes, so we must invest in measures that reduce the chances of those mistakes being fatal or life-changing.

There are sadly also many opportunities for many countries to implement still the most basic legislation and enforcement and education regimes to control driver behaviour. It is shameful that such legislation and enforcement is still wanting. Yet many countries do not have low speed limits, drink and drug drive legislation, legislation against mobile phones, or even robust driver training, testing and licensing systems or full seat belt or motorcycle helmet laws. Many countries woefully lack adequate policing regimes, or enforcement equipment such as speed cameras, to enforce these essential laws.
Perhaps most tragically, in the poorest countries many people die simply due to lack of rapid response ambulances and trauma equipment.

A common statement in Brasilia was, "We know what needs to be done – now is the time to do it." Not only is the time now, it is urgent that we act. And saving lives makes economic sense; up to 5% of low and middle income countries' GDP is spent on dealing with the tragic aftermath of road deaths and injuries. But most of all, it is a necessity to contribute to combatting climate change.

By positioning road safety within the greatest battle humanity faces, we can hope to save more lives through the additional urgency that is attached to our desperate cause. And every life counts. Repeatedly in Brasilia it was agreed the only truly acceptable target is zero because every death and injury is preventable. We know how to do it, and it is up to governments around the world to take that lead – right now.