Apparently, it’s not just the U.S. that saw traffic fatalities increase last year despite the fact there were substantively fewer drivers on the roads — it was a global issue and one that the United Nations and the World Health Organization are trying to tackle.
The two kicked off the sixth U.N. Global Road Safety Week focusing on the need for drivers to slow down in urban areas while pressuring government policymakers to cut speed limits on roads and streets in those environments to just 20 mph, or 30 kph.
“We need a new vision for creating safe, healthy, green and liveable cities,” notes Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). “Low-speed streets are an important part of that vision. As we recover and rebuild from COVID-19, let’s make safer roads for a safer world.”
Fewer cars emboldened more drivers
The WHO reported 1.3 million die annually in traffic crashes, and more than 30% of those fatalities can be tied directly to driving too fast, recklessly or both in high-income countries.
The organization estimates that 40-50% of people drive above the speed limit, with every 0.6 mph, or 1 kph, increase in speed resulting in a 4-5% increase in fatal crashes. The risk of death and injury reduces considerably when speeds are lowered.
Since early 2020 the amount of traffic on roads around the world has decreased due to COVID-19 lockdowns and people working from home. This has led to fewer road traffic crashes; however, fatality numbers have not decreased in the same proportion because people drive at higher speeds.
The U.S. experienced the same effect with highway deaths rising to their highest level since 2007 despite a significant reduction in the miles Americans drove last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Preliminary data indicates as many as 42,060 Americans died in motor vehicle crashes last year – an 8% increase from 2019. The death rate surged 24% on a per-mile basis – the biggest year-over-year jump since 1924.
Not just people in vehicles dying
Walking has become a more deadly enterprise in many states, as the U.S. pedestrian fatality rate rose 20% in the first six months of 2020. The analysis found that from January through June 2020, 2,957 pedestrians were killed in motor vehicle crashes — six more than during same period in 2019.
Factoring in a 16.5% reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) nationwide, the rate of drivers striking and killing pedestrians jumped to 2.2 deaths per billion VMT, a significant and unsettling increase from 1.8 deaths the year before, said GHSA spokesman Adam Snider.
The WHO found similar results and as a result is pushing for lower speeds, and getting at least one very recognizable name to help with its cause.
Finding support from people and places
“So many of us around the world are taking to the streets and demanding change,” said Zoleka Mandela, Global Ambassador for the Child Health Initiative, during an online news conference Monday. Mandela is granddaughter of former South African President Nelson Mandela, and she lost her 13-year-old daughter, Zenani, in a road traffic crash in South Africa in 2010.
“We want low speeds, we want livable streets, and communities where we can walk safely, where our children can get to school unharmed. We call for 30 km/h speed limits. Above 30 is a death sentence.”
The 20 mph/30 kph speed limit came from the 2020 Stockholm Declaration on Road Safety calling for measures to strengthen the enforcement of this new speed limit.
Several cities in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, including Graz, Austria; London; New York City; and Toronto, indicated that 20 mph speed limits and zones yielded significant reductions in road traffic crashes, injuries and deaths. Streets with lower speed limits where people mix with traffic not only save lives, but also promote walking, cycling — a move towards zero-carbon mobility.