China’s drive for better road safety is starting to pay dividends but it still has a way to go
Kamilia Lahrichi praises Beijing’s efforts to introduce laws covering drink-driving, speeding, seat belt and helmet use, but says better planning and coordination are needed to cut the 250,000 road deaths per year
Following the end of the second global conference on road safety in Brazil this week, China deserves praise for progress in cutting its death toll since 2001. However, it still has a way to go.
Although Beijing has passed most of the critical legislation – covering drink-driving, motorcycle helmets and seat belts – to foster a culture of safety, the world’s biggest auto market still counts over 250,000 road deaths a year (nearly 25 per cent of all such fatalities worldwide), according to the “Global Status Report on Road Safety 2015” released by the World Health Organisation this month.
The reality is that road injuries are not an incurable ill; government inaction, however, may be.
Car accidents remain the major cause of death for Chinese under 45, according to the WHO. In other words, those aged under 45 are more likely to die in a car accident than from suicide, HIV or malaria.
This global public health issue can only be solved domestically. There needs to be better coordination between different sectors of government, such as the health and transport ministries.
First, the Chinese government has a critical role to play in communicating properly the risks of not enforcing the seat belt, speeding, helmet and drink-driving laws.
Similarly, it has to shed light on the potential of road safety in terms of health and development. In fact, economic losses related to road accidents amount to 3-5 per cent of GDP in low- and middle-income nations like China – a critical loss.
To do so, Beijing has to provide relevant and accurate data on road crashes. The WHO’s figures for China’s annual death toll in road traffic accidents are more than four times those that the Chinese government published. Police in China often underreport road death figures.
The point is to take into account all casualties – drivers and passengers but also pedestrians.
It may not be possible for any government to completely eliminate road accidents, but they can all enhance their response to crashes by making available an emergency phone number and training people to attend to road victims as quickly as possible.
Another simple measure to cut accidents is to install speed bumps near schools.
Many lives could be saved in China with better transport planning. Road casualties in Chinese cities are usually drivers, but passengers and cyclists are also victims. Riders of two-wheeled vehicles and pedestrians are the main victims in rural areas.
China’s future is ultimately not about manufacturing and using more cars. Rather, it should be about walking and cycling more, and safely.
Kamilia Lahrichi is a foreign correspondent and recipient of the 2014 United Nations Foundation’s “Global Issues” Journalism Fellowship. www.kamilialahrichi.com