It might be the world’s deadliest, least known conflict. The latest available figures from the World Health Organization show that road accidents claimed at least 1.25 million lives in 2013, more than twice the death toll from the war in Syria. Nor is the carnage confined to far-off lands. It is happening in countries from America to Australia, and increasingly, in developing Asia.
Road safety is a local challenge with global public health and development implications. Around the world, deaths from road traffic exceed malaria and HIV-related illnesses. As the leading killer of young people, road crashes push households into poverty and strain national healthcare systems, according to the WHO’s 2015 global status report on road safety. In India, for example, an estimated 10-30% of hospital admissions stem from road injuries, despite a relatively low rate of motorization. In Thailand, home to Asia’s deadliest roads, an estimated 24,000 people die every year, second only to Libya worldwide, according to the WHO.
The human and economic toll is especially staggering for low and middle-income countries, where death rates can be more than double those in high-income countries. While road fatalities in low and middle-income countries have leveled off globally since 2007, the total is expected to increase to almost 2 million per year by 2020, according to the Tokyo-based International Association of Traffic and Safety Sciences. These losses add up. Road traffic deaths and injuries cost many developing countries from 2% to 5% of gross domestic product each year, according to the World Bank.
At the same time, Asia is spending heavily on new roads and other hard infrastructure. Last year, it led the world with 552 infrastructure deals worth a record $131 billion, according to Preqin, a U.S.-based provider of data on infrastructure and finance. The region’s share of global spending on infrastructure is expected to continue rising over the next decade as its economies and cities grow.
Done right, this massive infrastructure push could improve road safety, particularly for developing economies such as Kazakhstan. Among the 52 European and Central Asian countries examined in the WHO’s 2015 report on road safety, Kazakhstan has the highest road traffic death rate, followed by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Kazakhstan is also a keystone for regional infrastructure investment programs such as the United Nations’ Asian Highway Network, the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation program, a partnership of 10 countries and six multilateral institutions, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
To put these challenges and opportunities into context, an international team of civil engineers, geographers, and public policy specialists analyzed road quality and crash data covering approximately 13,000km of highways in Kazakhstan, for a new study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The team found that most roads are undivided, with two lanes, and most crashes are related to infrastructure deficiencies and noncompliance with traffic rules and regulations.
These results are intended to assist the government of Kazakhstan, which recently developed a national road safety strategy and earlier this year was on track to see accidents decline by 13%, according to government figures. Continuing that progress will require setting investment priorities. Every economy has finite resources to maintain, upgrade, and build roads. By identifying priority areas for further inspection and a menu of specific infrastructure improvements the study sheds light on a challenge that costs Kazakhstan an estimated 4% of gross domestic product annually.
Of course, road safety is not the only concern for infrastructure planning, which must balance a range of economic and social goals. Nor is infrastructure planning the only factor impacting road safety, which also depends on improving driver behavior and raising public awareness. Yet there is a clear link between bringing highways up to international standards and improving safety.
To their credit, several major regional connectivity efforts aim to improve road safety. Last year, the CAREC program proposed a road safety strategy for the region. The U.N.’s Asian Highway Network tracks progress toward meeting road standards. China has listed “road safety facilities” among its objectives for the BRI. Ultimately, however, these goals hinge on implementation, which varies widely in practice.
Capacity and resource constraints often limit effective action. Road construction and maintenance, including safety audits and crash monitoring, are complex endeavors. Technical training and assistance from multilateral development banks and developed countries, which have reduced their own accident rates in recent years, can help. Private sector companies that bring high standards to these activities also have an opportunity to do well by doing good.
Another challenge is that resource constraints can tempt policymakers to sacrifice road quality in favor of quantity. Realistic estimates consider not only short-term construction expenses but also maintenance and other life cycle costs. When national budgets consider only the upfront costs of road construction, those new roads eventually degrade and costs rise. Poorly maintained surfaces not only make collisions more likely but also increase vehicle maintenance costs.
As Asia continues to grow, investing in road safety will pay even greater dividends. Rising motorization rates mean there will be more drivers sharing Asia’s roads. In Kazakhstan, for example, the number of registered vehicles has more than doubled over the last decade. Furthermore, new infrastructure and continued regional integration could increase the intensity of cross-border trade and transportation.
Building and managing safe roads is a wise investment. What is also needed is a shift in thinking by government officials. The yardstick by which we judge Asia’s infrastructure push must not be limited to single dimensions. Along with economic impacts, we must consider human impacts. Along with quantity, we must consider infrastructure quality. A more holistic view does not just save money. It also saves lives.
Jonathan Hillman is director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
This article was originally published in the Nikkei Asian Review.