National governments should make road safety a high political priority and create a lead agency to guide road safety efforts, say Lee Jong-wook and James D Wolfensohn

ROAD traffic injuries are a major and growing public health and development concern. If nothing is done to change current trends, they will be the third leading contributor to ill health in the world by the year 2020. The knowledge currently exists to reverse these trends, provided that collective will is harnessed for action.

That is why on a World Health Day dedicated to road safety, we are sounding the alarm and calling on governments, international agencies, multinational corporations, and other decision-makers to take action to improve the safety of our roads.

Few among us have not been touched by news of a loved one, a friend, a neighbour or a colleague whose life has been changed dramatically and permanently because of a road crash. Over the course of any day the tragic news of a death on the road is delivered to families and friends as many as 3,000 times around the world.

For these families, beyond the shock and the grief lies the economic reality of road traffic injuries. Loss of income due to the death or disability of a primary breadwinner, the costs of medical care or even a funeral can drive a family into poverty. On a global scale, it is estimated that road traffic injuries cost economies US $518 billion every year — or the equivalent of 1 to 2% of most countries’ gross national product.

The grief and the shock that result from road crashes are universal. The circumstances are not. We are not all equally exposed to the risk of being involved in a crash. Of the nearly 1.2 million road traffic deaths every year, more than one million occur in low- and middle-income countries. Ninety per cent of the world’s road traffic deaths occur in countries whose citizens own 20% of the world’s cars. Unlike in rich countries where those most at risk of being involved in a crash are car drivers and passengers, the most vulnerable road users in poor countries are pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and users of informal modes of public transport– in most cases, people who cannot afford to own a car.