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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Balance road safety and public health

Africa has two percent of the world’s registered vehicles but a disproportionate 16 percent of the world’s road traffic deaths. Africa has more than twice the rate of road fatalities that occur in Europe where there are 10 deaths per 100,000.
In a business-as-usual scenario road fatalities will surpass the number of malaria related deaths in sub-Saharan Africa. According to a World Bank report, road fatalities in sub-Saharan Africa are predicted to rise by 80% by 2020. Seven countries – DR Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa Tanzania and Uganda – will account for two-thirds of road deaths in the region.
 The rate of urbanization has gathered momentum. The overflow in our streets, gridlock in woefully inadequate roads and unplanned urban sprawl underline the pain and dis-ease of Africa’s unprecedented demographic and economic change. Furthermore, our planning systems are woeful; land use, urban and road infrastructure planning are neither coordinated nor integrated.
Rapid urbanization and the consequent explosion of vehicles, high population, unplanned suburban growth and inadequate public transport infrastructure now undermine public health and safety. A majority of Nairobi’s commuting public does so on foot. However, although the urban poor have environmentally friendly or “green” travel habits they bear they pay with life, limb and blood.
Inadequate public transport dictates travel options, constrain a majority of urban residents into choosing high-risk transport options. Owing to unplanned urban expansion in cities like Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, public transport is unreliable or expensive or does not serve rapid expanding sub-urban settlements. It is not surprising that a majority the victims of road traffic fatalities in urban areas are vulnerable road users – pedestrians, cyclists and boda boda riders.
High fatality rate among pedestrians is attributable to poor road design in dense urban neighborhoods where walking is the main form of transport. Exacerbating the traffic fatalities is the fact that city planners and those who design road infrastructure do not think seriously about the majority of urban residents who do not use motorized transport. Urban form and function is hostile to the non-driving public.
Most traffic accidents occur in urban and sub-urban areas, where there is a more complex traffic environment and a predominance of road users that are more susceptible to death or injury in the event of an accident. For example, motorists along the Thika Superhighway have killed more than 209 road-crossing pedestrians.  Another 278 have been injured in while trying to cross this massive highway.
The cause of an accident is never established. This is because of lack of capacity to rigorously investigate and analyze traffic accidents. The police often arrive too late, when the accident scene is contaminated, and all they end up doing is rescue, retrieval and restoration of traffic flow. Besides data on fatalities, casualty information, crucial for more comprehensive analysis, is often missing. Moreover, the police seldom seek eyewitness or survivor accounts. And to make matters worse, data records held by the police or hospitals or the Kenya Red Cross.
Society or the hospitals are not linked or integrated. In the absence of reliable data and evidence a balance between the competing goals of sustainable urbanization urban such as mobility, efficiency, security, safety and air quality standards will be difficult to achieve. And our roads will not be safer.
 Nevertheless, the relationship between vehicle speed and accidents has long been established. Speeding is the number one road safety problem, especially in densely populated, high pedestrian traffic urban neighborhoods. Studies have shown that reduction in average speeds of approximately 5 percent could yield a reduction in fatalities by as much as 20 percent. Over the last five years the authorities have acted to enforce speed limits on Kenyan roads.
However, it is not clear whether road accidents and associated fatalities or injuries have budged. More recently, the National Transport and Safety Authority has prescribed a speed limit of 50-kph or 30-mph in urban neighborhoods. However, enforcement is feeble and amateurish.
However, we need to balance road safety and public health. A study conducted by the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation shows that cutting speed limits below 65-kph was likely to increase emissions such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides as well as particulate matter.
As if by coincidence, pneumonia – strongly linked to emissions – is a leading cause of death in Nairobi. Seriously, the 50-kph speed limit in high-density urban neighborhoods needs urgent review.

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