I stumbled upon this infomercial from BBC World while looking for something to entertain me over dinner:
It’s always fascinating to see how a television documentary treats a subject that one has spent some time looking at — in this case, motor vehicles and public health.
The one little specific aspect of motor vehicles and public health that the documentary looks at is the problem of “road safety”, particularly in the poorer parts of the world. Well over a million people die on the world’s roads each year, disproportionately poor people killed by or in the name of rich people, putting road danger alongside those similarly neglected poor people’s problems, malaria and tuberculosis, in the public health league tables.
The documentary looked at the sort of interventions that can be made to reduce road deaths. They are interventions that the UN has backed as part of the “decade of action” on road safety, and which the World Bank is now helping to fund. They seem to fall into two categories: engineering and education.
The reasoning behind an engineering campaign is that it has been observed that some road designs see more deaths than other road designs. Motorways, with their regimented traffic, central reservations and hard shoulders, have fewer fatalities than roads that pitch opposing traffic head on, separated only by a bit of paint. Therefore, the World Bank will replace the dangerous streets and roads of the developing world with motorways. Some of you might already be mumbling something about confounding variables, and safety being achieved simply by driving vulnerable road users away with hostile environments, but shut up you ingrates, it’s a gift, for their safety.
Unfortunately, they are discovering that even when you build these fantastic new eight-lane highways, no matter how much you teach the kids the green-cross code, the bloody fools still misuse them. “The irony is, that freeway is supposed to serve the people, in whatever form that takes.” So the kindly international road safety folk are building pedestrian overpasses. They’re not even going to ask why people are trying to cross their shiny new road. Are they trying to get to their workplaces? Their school, or shops, or market? Their few remaining fields? What kind of a moron builds their house on one side of a motorway and their school on the other? You might ask whether it’s worth expending money on people who make such an elemental mistake. But the road safety folk are so nice they will provide a foot bridge just like that — no awkward questions asked.
The reasoning behind an education campaign is that it has been observed that many of the people who are dying are pedestrians and “two-wheeler” users, doing silly reckless things like running from one side of the road to the other, or putting themselves in the way of vehicles without first encasing themselves in armour. Did you know that in some of these countries they don’t even have hi-viz? Even some drivers are endangering themselves by not wearing a seatbelt. The only possible conclusion is that these people are ignorant of the risks that come with running across a motorway, and the benefits to be had from wearing helmets and seatbelts. If only we could reach out and let them know…
“Enforcing drink driving laws, making people wear seatbelts, toughening up on vehicle maintenance standards, these are all basic affordable things,” the presenter tells us. If only our own government thought so.
Unfortunately, enforcement seems to be a slip of the tongue. This doesn’t appear to be about enforcing drink-driving and seatbelt laws, but about educating people about the dangers of drink-driving and the merits of seatbelts. And simply telling people how to do something that they don’t want to do is at best an inefficient route to behavioural change. This has been shown time and time again, study after study shows that telling people — whether child pedestrians or experienced drivers — to do specific things in order to be safe on roads just doesn’t work. (See e.g. the review drawn up for NICE, the UK body which decides whether proposed health interventions are worthwhile.)
The one thing that road safety education does achieve, of course is good PR for the company that is funding it.
The BBC documentary doesn’t say who is behind all this stuff. A few representatives of development NGOs pop up, we visit the UN, who have put their name to the “decade of action”, and we know that the World Bank will be amongst those building roads. But we don’t really hear from the concerned and benevolent folk who persuaded the UN and World Bank to spend all this money on
bigger safer roads.
Michelle Yeoh, presenter of the BBC item, is global ambassador for road safety at the “Make Roads Safe” campaign. That campaign is the public facing side of the “Commission for Global Road Safety”, itself a part of the FIA Foundation. The FIA Foundation in turn being the independent charity funded by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the international automobile lobby.
Ian Roberts describes who the commissioners on the Commission for Global Road Safety are:
Canada is represented by an Executive Director at General Motors, Japan by a Board Member of the Bridgestone Corporation, the major trans-national tyre maker. Russia is represented by the President of the Russian Automobile Federation and Italy by a former president of the Automobile Club of Italy. Michael Schumacher represents Germany and France is represented by Gerard Saillant, Deputy President of the FIA Institute, another FIA creation and responsible for the medical aspects of Formula One. The UK Commissioner is the Chief Economist at Lehman Brothers, a US investment bank with financial links to Formula One. The US Commissioner is Director of the Global Road Safety Forum, an organization funded by the FIA and one of the ‘implementation partners’ that the Commission works with. The Commission’s Patron is Prince Michael of Kent, a former racing driver, now a member of the British Racing Drivers Club and the Bentley Drivers Club. Lord Robertson himself is Deputy Chairman of the Board of TNK-BP, a Russian oil company. According to the Lords’ Register of Interests, which shows that the FIA paid for Robertson to attend the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix, the Commission meets at the races.
In a response to Roberts’ paper about the Commission, the FIA Foundation reminded us that it “has no relationship with industry whatsoever”.
At Bath Skeptics, Ian Walker, referring to British road conditions, stated that anybody who has to use the roads as part of their job is working in Dickensian conditions. Health and Safety regulation means that death in the workplace is exceptionally rare in Europe today, and when it does occur, it is typically followed by extensive investigation to discover what went wrong, whether anybody was to blame, and how to prevent it ever happening again. Unless the workplace is a road, in which case death is routine, nobody is to blame, and nothing can be done about it. If you drive as part of your job, you are expendable labour.
One of the reasons that Europe’s workplaces are so safe, of course, is because we have simply outsourced the dangerous jobs. The poor of Africa and Asia, free from health and safety laws, are mining our minerals and weaving our clothes for pennies, working in real Dickensian conditions, and the World Bank needs to build big roads so that they can drive the products to the docks. Like Victorian mill-workers, the third world should be grateful for the kindness showed by their new bosses in providing such safe new roads, servants of the people.