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Curbing Latin America’s high traffic death rates

IDB works with countries to improve safety on the region’s streets, roads and highways

Ask Latin Americans to name their region’s most pressing problem, and they will most likely respond crime, poverty or corruption. Some may cite the shortage of decent housing or the poor performance of essential public services. Where would road safety fit in the long list of development priorities?

A few statistics may offer a clue: more than 100,000 people are killed every year in traffic crashes in Latin America and the Caribbean. Compared with other causes of untimely deaths, road incidents take more lives each day (about 275) than HIV-AIDS does (156). At 17 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, this region’s roadway fatality rate is nearly double that of higher income countries.

Traffic crashes have become the leading cause of death for Latin Americans between the ages of 15 and 29. On top of the tragic loss of life, unsafe roads often cause serious injuries with high social and economic costs. By some estimates, the region loses as much as 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product a year due to road crashes. Unless actions are taken to address this challenge, the trend is likely to worsen as more and more vehicles take to the roads.

The solution lies in improving safety on the streets, roads and highways across Latin America and the Caribbean. Addressing this issue successfully will require the coordination and collaboration of virtually all sectors of society, from governments to schools, NGOs, motor vehicle manufacturers, drivers, passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians.

As a major source of financing for transport infrastructure in Latin American and Caribbean countries, the Inter-American Development Bank is doing its part to help pave the way toward safer roads in the region.

Safety is a guiding criterion in the planning and design of transport investments financed by the IDB. Besides incorporating potentially life-saving features in the construction or rehabilitation of infrastructure, projects help governments develop and improve their national road safety plans. In Jamaica, the Bank has its first stand-alone road safety project, which includes infrastructure maintenance and support to the national road safety agency to improve data collection. Safer cars are also part of the solution. In 2010 the IDB joined the Latin American New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), which seeks to ensure that locally manufactured motor vehicles meet safety standards required in more developed regions. Car evaluations carried out by Latin NCAP over the past two years have provided consumers with independent information on the safety performance of some of the most popular models sold in this region, creating an incentive for manufacturers to improve their products.

Better-designed roads and safer vehicles will certainly make a difference, but up to 80 percent of road crashes can be attributed to human error. Targeting that problem, the IDB supports communication campaigns to raise awareness and promote responsible behavior on the region’s roads. In 2011, the Bank launched a pilot campaign for one of Haiti’s busiest highways. Besides traditional billboards, the campaign used radio spots, newspaper comics and even a sitcom television show to spread the message, focusing on adult drivers, young motorcyclists, and children, who typically walk to and from school.

The IDB also is partnering with other organizations working to improve road safety conditions. This week it participated in a conference in São Paulo, Brazil with the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the governing body of world motor sport, which includes the Formula One and motor rally championships.

The conference, held in the biggest city of the Latin American country with the largest motor vehicle population (more than 32 million units at the end of 2010, roughly one-third of all the vehicles in operation in the region), helped focus the attention of governments, businesses, academic institutions and consumer protection organizations on the issue of road safety.

“When it comes to improving road safety, isolated efforts will only get us so far,” said IDB Transport Division Chief Nestor Roa. “Curbing our region’s high traffic death rates requires making this issue a priority for our national development agendas and committing everyone to achieve this goal.”

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