A plea for safer travels
Today, on October 22, we celebrate National Road Safety Day. But why? Not why we care about safety—the devastating toll of accidents makes it clear why it is important—but why call it Road Safety Day? If we are using roads to travel from place to place, and we want to be able to do so safely, why not call it Safe Travels Day?
The problem with the current name is that it normalises travelling by motorised vehicles, and implies that other ways of movement are fringe, be it walking, cycling, taking a tram within a city, or a train out of the city. When we talk about safe travels, the automobile becomes just another—and remarkably dangerous—mode of transportation.
The term Road Safety Day implies that we can clog our roads with motorised vehicles and still improve safety. Another trick to distract attention from the inherently dangerous character of large motorised vehicles—vehicles weighing over a tonne and moving over 30km per hour—is to refer to traffic fatalities per 10,000 vehicles instead of per 100,000 people. Well, that is a strange way of doing it! With everything else, we measure the problem against the population of people. We don't refer to malaria or dengue cases per 100,000 mosquitoes, or rates of lung cancer per 100,000 cigarettes. By doing so, countries like the United States, which rely heavily on the automobile, look better than countries like Bangladesh.
According to Jatri Kalyan Samity, a platform advocating for passengers' welfare, up to 18 people died per day on the roads on average in Bangladesh in 2020; the number was 21 in 2019. In Dhaka alone, almost one pedestrian is killed in road crashes daily on average. For each death there are far more injuries, including serious ones. According to Wikipedia (citing WHO data), Bangladesh has 1,020.6 deaths per 100,000 motorised vehicles, whereas the United States has only 14.2, making Bangladesh look truly dreadful. But when you compare deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, suddenly the two countries are almost equal: 13.6 deaths for Bangladesh and 12.4 for the United States. Certainly, Bangladesh needs to improve the condition of its roads, but if the authorities believe that by doing so they will eliminate its road traffic fatalities, they would be dead wrong.
Another term that is used to mislead is "accident," which implies that if only people paid more attention, if only the traffic police were more active, if only the transport owners and drivers were more compliant with rules, if only it didn't rain or the roads were better maintained, if only pedestrians didn't do stupid and careless things like try to walk in cities, then accidents wouldn't happen. The truth is that motorised vehicles are dangerous by design. People are not meant to be hurtling along in heavy vehicles at great speed. There is no way to make it safe. Hence, many of those working in the field of safe travels refer to crashes, not accidents.
What would make travelling on the road safer is if we could switch people out of those heavy motorised vehicles (and off of motorcycles) and into trains, trams, bicycles, or to walking. Cities that have made progress towards Vision Zero—no deaths on the roads—have done so through a variety of means that focus on the true nature of the problem. They have limited speed to 30km per hour in the city, since we know that it is nearly impossible to kill someone unless you are travelling faster than that. They have created great systems of public transit and built convenient, safe, attractive infrastructure for walking and cycling. They have refused to accept the use of motorised vehicles as the norm, instead working to shift people to gentler, lighter modes that are much more compatible with preserving life and limb.
There is no need for trucks to be the de facto way to move freight; trains could play a much bigger role to that end. Sure, trains do occasionally derail or slam into something, but those incidents are extremely rare compared to the daily toll of highway crashes. Within cities, much of the freight can be moved by rickshaw vans. Intercity travelling by train is vastly safer than by bus or car. Travelling within cities by foot and bicycle would improve the health of the traveller and increase safety.
Why do we not hear much about such approaches? Alas, the car, fuel, and road-building lobbies have an immense amount of money and power that they use to lobby governments and international agencies. They benefit from the mirage of "road safety" and a denial of the readily available alternatives. But we don't have to continue to allow those corporations to dominate the conversation. Knowing what is at stake, we can raise our voices and demand that our need for safe travel be met, in large part by reducing reliance on the motorised vehicles that are the true source of the problem.
Debra Efroymson is executive director of the Institute of Wellbeing, Bangladesh, and author of "Beyond Apologies: Defining and Achieving an Economics of Wellbeing."