Cosmas Odoemena canvasses the ‘Zero death’ project as way of reducing the carnage on our roads

I recently attended to a dispatch rider who was knocked down by a sport utility vehicle while doing his job. He sustained a fracture in the leg and was lucky to have survived. Another vehicle drove into a residential building in one suburb in Lagos and was stopped by a concrete electric pole. Luckily no one died. But not everyone is that lucky. 

According to data from the Federal Road Safety Corps and the National Bureau of Statistics, between 2013 and 2020, at least 41,709 persons lost their lives to road crashes in Nigeria. Road traffic accidents remain one of the leading causes of death in the country. There have been efforts by the government to reduce road traffic accidents but they have not led to a significant reduction in them. 

But, is it possible to prevent people from dying from road traffic accidents? An ambitious project by a coalition entitled, The Road to Zero: Achieving Zero Deaths by 2050, thinks this is possible. Since it is impossible to eliminate human error, planners and engineers are thinking of ways to design roads and vehicles to accommodate human error to make the whole system safer. Joined with this effort is the promotion of a “Safety Culture” that stresses the importance of safety in all decisions made by everyone.

The Safe System Approach is now achieving success in some parts of the world. It originated in Sweden through its Vision Zero program and in the Netherlands through the Sustainable Safety program. They both achieved success with not less than a 50 percent reduction in fatalities between 1994 and 2015. This idea has found its way to other countries in Europe and beyond with remarkable success in Australia and New Zealand. Even the United Kingdom and the United States have latched on to it.

Everything about this project is captured in a circular logo called the Prioritizing Safety Wheel with Safe System at the center. Round the Wheel are five elements, Safe Vehicles, Safe Roads, Safe Speeds, Safe Road Users, and Post-Crash Care. Achieving zero traffic deaths and serious injuries requires strengthening all five elements. A Safe System cannot be realized without all five elements working in synergy. On the outer side of the Wheel, Safety Culture was echoed around it six times.

The Safe System Approach begins with a mentality that it is not acceptable to allow deaths and serious injuries to happen on the roads. It accepts that road users are human beings and that it’s inevitable for them to make mistakes. It is these mistakes that cause road traffic accidents. The goal of “zero” is to remove fatal and grave injuries, and not to eliminate crashes in totality. 

According to Mark Doctor, a senior safety and design engineer, and Chimai Ngo, a program manager for zero deaths, safety culture, and transportation safety planning initiatives, to achieve zero deaths and serious injuries, when crashes do happen, “they must be managed so that the kinetic energy exchange on the human body is kept below the tolerable limits for serious harm to occur.” This principle guides the use of a Safe System Approach in designing and operating the road system. It is expected that human error will occur, therefore, “the road infrastructure and vehicle technology must be designed and operated so that deaths and serious injuries are engineered out,” wrote Doctor and Ngo. 

Safe Vehicles—Vehicles are designed and regulated to minimize the frequency and severity of collisions by applying safety measures that use the latest technology. In-vehicle systems can help prevent the use of mobile phones while the vehicle is in motion to reduce distraction.

Safe Speeds—Human beings are less likely to survive crashes at high-speed. Reducing injuries to humans from speed reduction happens in three ways: reducing the force from the impact, giving additional time for drivers to stop, and improving visibility.

Safe Roads— Transportation infrastructure which is designed to allow for human mistakes and injury tolerances can significantly reduce the severity of crashes that do happen. For example, by physically separating people moving at different speeds, having dedicated times for different users to move through a space, and informing road users of hazards. Street design plays a vital role in this approach. Safer street designs can slow down vehicle movement, provide visual cues that make it clear when different user groups share the space, and when needed, provide separation between the user groups when vehicular operating speeds are incompatible for sharing space with other users. 

Safe Road Users—The safety of all road users is equally addressed; these include pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers, who ride transit or travel by some other mode. It includes reducing distractions for all road users. Part of it is reducing impairment. This can be through alcohol detection and ignition interlock systems which help in preventing intoxicated drivers from operating a motor vehicle.

Post-Crash Care—Those who are injured from crashes depend on emergency first responders to quickly find them and give them first aid before moving them to medical facilities. Post-crash care also includes forensic analysis obtained at the accident site, traffic incident management, and related activities.

Safety is a proactive concept. Transportation agencies can use proactive and data-driven tools to identify and reduce latent risks in the system, instead of waiting for accidents to happen and then reacting to them.

Nigeria can study this policy and see how it can be domesticated. Lagos State can blaze the trail in Nigeria through its smart city project. Perhaps the new city called the Eko Atlantic City can be used as a pilot study if it has not already been factored in. Even the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, can give Lagos a run for its money. Other states should not take my word for it!

The whole project will require legislative and enforcement strategies aimed at achieving widespread user compliance with road rules and laws. It will require money, vision, and political will. But it is something worth pursuing. One life matters. 

Dr. Odoemena, medical practitioner, writes from Lagos

Twitter: @cuzdetriumph

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