Slap on a helmet, keep your child safe on the road
Sometimes it's the human face behind the statistics that prompts you to rethink what counts as national development.
A woman and her children ride on a motorcycle during a heavy downpour in Sa Kaeo's Aranyaprathet district. Patipat Janthong
I had one of those rethinking moments during a recent visit to Bangkok.
It was prompted by a meeting with a parent who had lost a child. That child is now one of the statistics on road traffic injuries that should make every Thai citizen stop, think and demand change.
Last February, On-see said goodbye to his son Danaisak as he left for school. The next time he saw him was in a morgue. Danaisak, aged 13, died from head injuries sustained in a motorcycle crash. "I wish I could just hold him once more and protect him," his father told me.
The story is tragically familiar. Thailand has the world's second highest death rate from road crashes. Every day that passes sees another 72 lives lost. Road accidents are now the leading cause of injury and disability in Thailand.
Children are bearing the brunt of the road traffic injury epidemic. Almost 3,000 are killed each year. Tens of thousands are injured. Most of these deaths and injuries occur among children — like Danaisak — travelling as passengers on motorcycles.
As the number of cars and motorcycles on Thailand's roads rises, what can be done to save lives and protect children? That's a tough question with some surprisingly simple answers.
Let's start with helmets. One or two children sitting as passengers on motorcycles driven by their parents is a common sight in Thailand. Children wearing crash helmets are a less common sight. Just 7% of children travelling as passengers wear them. This matters because wearing a crash helmet cuts by two-thirds the risk of a serious head injury — and you can buy a children's crash helmet for just 340 baht.
It's tough to think of a better investment. Universal crash helmet coverage would save around one thousand young lives a year. It would prevent the grief that comes with the loss of a loved one. And it would dramatically reduce the cost of treating head trauma injuries in already over-stretched hospitals.
Other countries have demonstrated that change is possible. Vietnam is a much poorer country than Thailand. Yet it has dramatically reduced death and injury from motorcycle accidents. The key policy ingredients behind the success are strong laws backed by public education and effective enforcement. Vietnamese children are five times more likely to wear helmets than their counterparts in Thailand.
Thailand has the letter of the law. Drivers and passengers are legally required to wear helmets. Yet the law is violated with near total impunity. Moreover, a well-intentioned government campaign to promote children's use of crash helmets has failed in spectacular fashion. The end result: Child deaths and injury continues to mount.
The Asia Injury Prevention Foundation and Save the Children recently launched the "7% campaign". Working with schools around Bangkok, the campaign aims to make road safety part of the school curriculum — and to make crash helmets part of the school uniform. The hope is that, by directly engaging with schools and teachers, the campaign will challenge the complacency, ignorance and apathy that kills and maims so many children.
Of course, education alone is not enough. If laws are to be effective, they have to be enforced. The police should start getting tough on parents who allow their children to ride unprotected, imposing steep fines for repeat offenders. And every branch of government should be working to get across the message that every child riding a motorcycle has a right to expect protection.
The crash helmet deficit in Thailand is just one element in a wider crisis. Economic growth in developing countries has seen the use of cars and motorcycles spiral. On one estimate, the global vehicle fleet will double by 2030, putting another one billion vehicles on the road. Billions of dollars are being pumped into new roads. Transport policy success is measured increasingly in terms of speed and metal roads, rather than through what really counts — the safety of road users and the quality of life.
All too often the costs of this model are neglected. Today, more than one million people die each year as a result of road traffic injuries — more than 90% of them in developing countries. Another million are estimated to die as a result of air pollution linked to vehicle emissions. Meanwhile, as any resident of Bangkok will attest, the cars that have arrived with rising prosperity crawl along over-crowded roads. Traffic congestion typically wipes 1-2% off GDP in emerging market mega-cities. Too add insult to injury, vehicles are among the most fastest growth sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
It doesn't have to be like this. Lives can be saved through the enforcement of laws that put the interests of vulnerable road users — pedestrians, cyclists and motorcycle passengers — ahead of car owners.
Enforcing speed limits, clamping down on drunk driving, and designing roads with a view to safety rather than speed can save lives. At a minimum, governments should work to ensure that every child is able to make a safe journey to school. Cities in Brazil and Columbia have demonstrated that investment in public transport can dramatically reduce commuter travel times, with benefits for growth, employment and road safety. And pollution can be tackled through stringent regulation.
Thailand is one of the development success stories of the past fifty years. Economic growth has lifted millions out of poverty. Education, health and nutrition indicators have improved beyond recognition. Yet when it comes to transport policy and road safety, Thailand's record is less stellar.
This year, governments from around the world will agree on a new set of development goals for the post-2015 period. The current proposal includes a goal for halving deaths from road traffic injury by 2030 — an outcome that would save many millions of lives. The proposal is part of a wider package aimed at promoting sustainable transport systems.
Thailand should support the new goal. As a country, it cannot afford to see the lives and hopes of so many families shattered by avoidable deaths. And as a global community we need transport policies that address the climate, environment and economic challenges of the 21st century.
Kevin Watkins is executive director of the Overseas Development Institute and former director of the UN Human Development Report.