Civil Works

Road accidents: Blame road designers, not drivers, says new Report

Every time an accident happens on our roads, traffic police are quick to blame over-speeding, drink driving, reckless driving or carelessness on the part of the pedestrian/cyclist. That is, blame is always placed on human error. Now, a new report says humans make mistakes anyway, and so authorities need to move away from apportioning blame to the road users, and shifting it to the road makers-city planners and road designers. It argues further that if countries make this paradigm shift, road accidents will be considerably reduced.

The approach called the “Safe System” has already demonstrably worked in countries like Sweden, which brought down road accidents from 55 per cent in 1994 to a mere 3 per cent in 2015. It has also worked in Norway, Netherlands, among other countries. In the developing world, the city of Bogota (Colombia) and New Mexico (Mexico) have already adopted this approach with evident success.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 1.25 million people die in road accidents annually, 90 per cent of them in developing, low-income countries. Road accidents are lower in developed countries. Moreover, research shows that countries lose up to 5 per cent of their GDP to road accident fatalities and morbidity every year.

Uganda’s ministry of Works & Transport in their 2016/17 annual report said 9,575 people died in road accidents  between 2014-2017-meaning the country loses  average of 3,000 people every year, 250 every month, to road accidents.

The report, Sustainable & Safe: A vision and Guidance for Zero Road Deaths published by the World Resources Institute (January 2018) says, “The Safe System approach is based on a more foundational understanding of the underlying causes of traffic fatalities and serious injuries, particularly human fallibility and vulnerability and the responsibility of governments to protect their citizens.”

It adds, “This approach is based on the principle that errors are inevitable but traffic fatalities and serious injuries should not be. The road system should be designed so that human error does not have a serious or fatal outcome.”

The approach is based on five key principles, namely that: (i) human make errors, (ii) humans are vulnerable to injury, (iii) responsibility of safety on the road is shared (between road users and authorities-road makers and law enforcement. The fourth principle is that  no death or serious injury is acceptable, in other words people don’t have to pay the price with their lives (death) or their bodies (injuries). Lastly, that road safety is a public health issue, not an individual driver issue, and therefore government need to take more proactive actions, not just waiting to react when accidents have already occurred.

The report’s analysis of traffic fatalities in 53 countries found that countries that adopted a Safe System–based approach to road safety, achieved both the lowest rates of fatalities and the largest reduction in fatalities over the past 20 years.

This approach proposes that:  Firstly, roads should be designed for safety by use of humps, protected pedestrian medians, making roads narrower in high population areas and improving road marking. All of these help to lower speeds and reduce the risks  of accidents. Or if accidents happen, the rates of survival of victims if high. Research shows that a person hit by a car driving at 30 Km per hour has 90 per cent chances of survival. If a car driving at 50 Km per hour hits the same victim, their chances of survival fall to 15 per cent.-the higher the speeds, the lower the chances of survival.

The second thing that needs to happen to reduce road carnage is creating a reliable and comfortable public transport system. Evidence shows that accidents tend to be higher where use of private cars is higher. In other words, countries with a well-developed public transport system register lower accidents on their roads. And the logic is simple, the more the people on the road, in private cars, the higher the likelihood of making human errors. Creating an effective and comfortable public transport system will draw many commuters to the public transport, thereby abandoning the idea of everyone having to drive a personal car.

The third element of the “Safe System” it to make the system work, namely; the urban planners, road designers, engineers, medical personnel, enforcement agencies (traffic police), all need to work together in tandem. Improving roads by the urban authorities without involvement of the enforcement agencies or designing of the roads by engineers without consulting the enforcement agencies, for example, most times only service to bring more chaos into the urban centres, raising chances of accidents, the report argues.

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