Covid-19 has propelled us to reconsider a great many matters, both in our private and public lives.
Dr Ilma Bogdan FRSA argues that one matter, which seems not to have been spoken about enough and which has been decidedly affected by the pandemic, is road safety.
As we anticipate and prepare for a worldwide recovery by virtue of mass vaccinations, rethinking how we use transport on our roads is imperative to guarantee a safer and more sustainable post-pandemic mobility.
To begin, let us outline the impact that the pandemic had on the road safety sector. The most immediately obvious outcome of the lockdown was the dramatic reduction of driving and traffic congestion. As a result, air pollution reduced, with an increase in people walking and cycling instead of driving vehicles. Fewer cars on the roads, cleaner air and a reduction in road crash causalities were some of the positive effects brought about by the pandemic.
However, these ‘positives’ maybe somewhat misleading. There is evidence that scarcity of cars on roads led to the increase of cases of drivers speeding as well as some using mobile phones whilst being behind the wheel. Consequently, an increased number of pedestrians and cyclists became more vulnerable to being hit by those speeding drivers and mobile users. For instance, careful examination of the lockdown data in South Asia shows that, despite the fall in the overall number of road causalities during the lockdown, the fatality rate per kilometre travelled has risen. Also, Northern Ireland reported last month that the number of road deaths remained unchanged in 2020 despite the lockdown.
The pandemic also caused an insufficiency of police officers available to supervise and enforce road safety rules, since many of them, if not themselves infected, were overwhelmed by the more urgent repercussions of combating the virus. For instance, parts of Australia reduced random breath testing of drivers in attempt to save police force resources. Alongside this, some countries temporarily relaxed certain driving restrictions, particularly for lorries transporting consumer goods and medical supplies.
In order to focus on more critical ramifications of the pandemic, both government and media attention was diverted from the road safety sector – its policies and their efficient implementation – whilst the healthcare system could not provide adequate care for road crash victims and the bereaved due to its focus on saving those infected by Covid-19. At the same time, road safety NGOs and charities suffered a dramatic fall in funding, loss of volunteers and staff as well as a decrease in government, private sector and media engagement. Some of their projects were cancelled or postponed whilst other community programmes could no longer be implemented because of the lockdown restrictions.
With this in mind, as we look towards post-Covid-19, what lessons can we learn when rethinking the road safety sector?
The first question to consider is whether the pandemic experience will engender tangible behavioural changes with regard to using transport. Will people continue opting for walking, cycling and, with reduced threat of the virus spread, public transport instead of vehicles? On the one hand, it may be a timely opportunity for governments, road safety NGOs, charities and activists to promote walking and cycling to keep air cleaner and cities more sustainable, especially given the fact that already more people want to work from home even when the lockdown ends. On that other hand, that may only be plausible if pedestrians and cyclists are safe from speeding, dangerous and careless drivers. Unfortunately, there is now evidence that some are choosing to buy cheap and less safe vehicles, and that fact may aggravate the risk of pedestrians and cyclists being injured.
That leads to the second question of the necessity for governments and local authorities to improve and vigilantly monitor road safety standards. Here the danger is that awaited road safety legislation will be delayed or cancelled due to governments’ regard to other immediate post-pandemic recovery priorities. In this context, road safety NGOs and charities may play a crucial role in providing support for road crash victims and the bereaved whilst governments’ attention is elsewhere. There is a pressing need, therefore, to ensure that they survive the lockdown and are able to provide long-term strategies for the road safety sector.
With that in mind, it is critical that funding to support road safety NGOs and charities continues. Where possible, governments and the private sector should work more closely with these organisations to help them in building long-term sustainability and resilience. In turn, road safety NGOs and charities themselves should be proactive, working across traditional sector boundaries and adapting to the new context. They should look for innovative tools for raising income, such as social investment – a financial tool, which is repayable (debt or equity), often with interest – as well as new ways of implementing their programmes, not least by active use of digital and online platforms.
Besides, it might be the right time to take a united approach; perhaps through cross-sector campaigns for a comprehensive reconsideration of the road safety sector by public authorities. For this message to be heard, this would mean collaborating with other key players, such as environmental organisations and groups, to collectively push for an agenda that elaborates on the opportunities presented by the pandemic.
Dr Ilma Bogdan FRSA is a Trustee of RoadPeace