Safe from the start: road building

Brazil walker

Some roads are still being paved for the first time in the world's poorest countries. If footpaths and cycle paths are not built at the same time, people continue to use these roads to walk and cycle, facing danger, injury and death. The space that was previously for their mobility, has, in effect, been stolen and is now space for traffic. Traffic and people don't mix.

Children are at particularly high risk the world over. The risks faced by children are particularly acute in the poorest countries, where children are often forced to walk along the margins of fast roads and cross roads wtihout pavements or crossings in order to get to school or visit friends and relatives. 

Funding for road paving and increasing the capacity of roads to carry more vehicles (widening and adding lanes) in low and middle income nations (LMICs) is often self-funded by those nations. A small proportion of the funding also comes from development banks, such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (among others), channeled through the relevant nation's government.

Brake calls on all governments in all nations, including the richest nations,to take social responsibility very seriously when considering road building. Road developments must be dependent on: 

1. Consideration of sustainable transport solutions first such as rail and cycle ways. Is the road project really necessary? Does damage to people and the environment, through inevitable crashes and air pollution, and their drain on GDP, outweigh perceived short term economic gains and development? Increasingly, development banks are recognising the value of investing in sustainable transport. 

2. The building of separate footpaths and cycle paths. Wherever there is a road being paved, space must be created for people who previously used that road, so they can carry on walking and cycling in safety and to help save the planet. This includes long rural roads. Cycling is a fast and environmentally-friendly method of travelling long distances. 

3. Segregation of footpaths and cycle paths. A cheaper, but inadequate, solution is a wider road, with lanes for pedestrians and cyclists defined through paint (see example of poor design in the picture above of a new highway north of Brasilia, Brazil). This standard of road building provides woefully inadequate protection to people on foot and bicycles. 

4. Implementation of speed limits particularly 30kph (20mph) limits in villages, towns and cities, particularly around schools and communities.

5. Implementation of speed-control measures, notably speed humps (useful for slowing down traffic at the entrance to villages for example) and the capacity to enforce speed limits preferably through speed enforcement technology (speed cameras or speed guns held by police). 

6. Involvement of local NGOs and other community stakeholders to: help assess the necessity of changes to roads from a community safety and sustainability perspective, and enable consideration of alternatives; put the needs of people above the needs of traffic and enable local community voices to be heard; to provide knowledge to local people about safe behaviours on new / changed roads; to support their governments, in the media in particular, for investing in infrastructure safety improvements. In LMICs, some NGOs working for road safety have been enabled to participate in such ways, through small amounts of funding associated with road building projects. 

7. A plan for how the road, paths and crossing places for cyclists and pedestrians will be managed safely. Will they be maintained and how will that be funded? Will any deaths or injuries on the road be recorded and investigated? Will there be funding, training and equipment for speed enforcement? Will the road still be as safe if volume or type of traffic reaches certain levels, or if efforts to manage speed fail?

Development banks have been taking steps to show their commitment to safety and sustainability as well as funding road building. The World Bank insists on safety indicators for all its projects. The Asian Development Bank has an operational plan for sustainable transport [1] and action plan for road safety [2]. 

There is also a helpful international "standard" for the safety of road infrastructure, set by the charity iRAP. iRAP awards roads "stars" (one to five, with five being an indicator the road is "safe" and one being least safe). To determine star rating, iRAP studies a stretch of road, who uses a road, and the safety measures on that road. As well as measures that protect pedestrians and cyclists, this includes measures to protect vehicle ocupants such as crash barriers. Crash barriers can save vehicle occupants' lives in high speed crashes because they prevent vehicles crashing head on with traffic coming in the opposite direction, or running off a road into trees etc.

There are additional, low-cost measures that can help improve safety on long, rural roads. For example, arrows painted on the road indicating the required direction of travel (useful in countries with large numbers of tourist visitors, such as New Zealand) and central line rumble strips that alert a driver if they are crossing a central line into the opposing lane (a lower cost measure than central barriers for very long and narrow rural roads). 

There have been global calls for all roads to be iRAP starred three or above. However, iRAP's claim that they "make roads safe" does not mean that the charity is claiming that a safer road design will eliminate road casualties. The causes of crashes are multiple, including driver behaviour (speeding, drink and drug driving, fatigue, etc.). The outcome of crashes is determined by multiple factors, including crash prevention and protection features, inclusive of seat belt and helmet wearing. Safe roads is just part of the equation. 

If mapping the location of road casualties as part of research to identify crash "black spots" in need of infrastructure improvements, these black spots may not be indicative of the only risky parts of the road network. For example, roads with fast traffic may result in low or no cycling due to fear; the lack of cyclist casualties on such roads in this case not being indicative of the roads being safe. 

Campaigners should speak out for improvements to local roads before a death or serious injury happens, and not have to wait for casualties before road safety measures are considered and implemented on those roads. Campaigners, and NGOs they belong to, play a vital role in shouting out about communities' fear of traffic and its impact on them. 

Want to learn more about iRAP? Click here to go to the iRAP website> 

[1] ADB Sustainable Transport Initiative Operational Plan 
[2] ADB Action Plan for Road Safety