Trucks at Work

Debating global roadway safety

It’s seems a bit strange to be discussing roadway safety efforts in light of the deployment of chemical weapons in Syria’s ongoing – and horribly brutish – civil war; a war that’s claimed well over 100,000 Syrian lives, turned 2 million more into refugees, and may very well take a more global turn if the U.S. becomes involved.

Yet road traffic incidents remain the eighth leading cause of death for people around the world, and the leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 29, according to the Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013, the second such report compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO).

WHO’s report – which covers 182 countries, accounting for almost 99% of the world’s population – indicates that total number of global road traffic deaths hovers at 1.24 million per year, with only 28 countries – covering a measly 7% of the world’s population – maintaining comprehensive road safety laws to reduce five key risk factors: drinking and driving, speeding, failing to use motorcycle helmets, adult seatbelt use, and use of child restraints.

The global agency also warned that current trends suggest that by 2030 road traffic deaths could become the fifth leading cause of death, unless actions are taken to beef up roadway safety more thoroughly and uniformly around the world.

This is by no means an easy process, even among population subsets that should automatically recognize the value of consistent safety device usage.

Take seatbelts, for example: A recent survey conducted by Sweden's National Society for Road Safety (known by its Swedish acronym “NTF”) based on observations of more than 700 truck drivers and interviews with over 200 of them between 2011 and 2013 found that while most said they used seatbelts when driving a car, only half did so behind the wheel of their truck.

Among the reasons given for not using their seatbelts while operating a truck: it’s too difficult, inconvenient or time-consuming to put on and take off seatbelts.

Yet it is the seatbelt that remains the primary safety system for truck drivers, argued Carl Johan Almqvist, traffic and product safety director for Volvo Trucks, in a recent missive. Indeed, he believes that if more drivers of all types of vehicles within the European Union (EU) wore their seatbelts more consistently, 7,000 more lives could saved every year.

“Professional drivers should serve here as an example," Almqvist (seen at right) stressed. “In recent years belt usage has increased among truck drivers, but even so, fewer than half use the safety belt. And that's despite the fact that both our own and other European research has revealed that at least 50% of truck drivers who lost their lives in traffic would have survived if they had been belted in. Of all truck drivers involved in fatal accidents, only 5% were wearing their safety belts.”

Indeed, WHO’s global safety report noted that increased seatbelt usage is one of the most crucial issues for improving traffic safety. Indeed, the agency said here is legislation today requiring safety belt usage in 111 countries the world over and as of 2006 compulsory seatbelt use is mandated required in the EU for both cars and trucks.

“The chances of surviving a serious road accident are doubled if the driver or passenger uses a safety belt,” Volvo’s Almqvist emphasized. “So bearing in mind that the safety belt can spell the difference between life and death, the simplest measure of all is naturally to use the single most important safety feature on board a truck: the safety belt."

Still, there are some positive trends that should be noted on the global roadway safety front, too. Indeed, WHO’s report showed that while there has been no overall reduction in the number of people killed on the world’s roads over the last few years, this “plateau” should be considered in the context of a corresponding 15% global increase in the number of registered vehicles – suggesting that interventions to improve global road safety have mitigated the expected rise in the number of deaths.

Indeed, WHO found that 88 countries – in which almost 1.6 billion people live – reduced the number of deaths on their roads between 2007 and 2010, showing that improvements are possible and that many more lives will be saved if countries engage in stronger roadway and traffic safety efforts.

Yet the agency is concerned about another factoid: that 87 countries witnessed increases in the numbers of road traffic deaths over the same period. The report also shows that the highest road traffic fatality rates are in what are dubbed “middle-income” countries, particularly in Africa.

On top of that, more than three-quarters of all road traffic deaths around the world are among young males, again perhaps pointing a population subgroup that requires more attention from safety groups.

There’s a lot in WHO’s report that deserves some chewing on no doubt, yet many of the policy “curatives” the agency recommends – making road infrastructure investments to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety, as well as beefing up enforcement efforts – come with big price tags and thus may be unaffordable in these still-stingy economic times.

Solving the fiscal conundrums, then, may represent one of the biggest safety challenges of all. 

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