Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


We need a global campaign for road safety,

but not one controlled by the motor industry.

by George Monbiot

Published in the Guardian (May 15 2007)

Corporate social responsibility often resembles the adventures of The Good Soldier Svejk. In 1914, about to be conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army, Svejk puts on his old uniform and a volunteer's buttonhole and, waving his borrowed crutches and shouting "to Belgrade, to Belgrade!", has his landlady push him to the recruiting office in a bath chair. Jaroslav Harsek's marvellous creation is lauded by the newspapers for his extraordinary patriotism.

By this means Svejk attempts to persuade the authorities that he is doing everything he can to get to the front, even if, to his enormous regret, his rheumatism prevents him from having his brains blown out. By noisily volunteering to subject themselves to stricter standards, the corporations try to pre-empt the rules which might otherwise have been imposed on them. This, they hope, will allow them to participate only when and how they see fit.

In Svejk's case it didn't work. His patriotism was rewarded with enemas and emetics until his rheumatism was miraculously cured. The corporations, on the other hand, always seem to persuade the authorities of their undying commitment to the causes they espouse, which ensures that they can enter the war on their own terms. This seems to be the way that the global campaign on road safety is going.

Death and injury on the roads is the world's most neglected public health issue. Almost as many people die in road accidents - 1.2 million a year - as are killed by malaria or tuberculosis. Around fifty million are injured. Some 85% of these accidents take place in developing countries. The poor get hurt much more often than the rich, as they walk or cycle or travel in overloaded buses. The highest death rate is among children walking on the roads {1}.

The annual economic cost to developing countries, in lost productivity alone, is $65-100 billion: roughly the same as the amount they receive in foreign aid {2}. I caught a glimpse of the human cost when I was hospitalised in northern Kenya. Some of the men on the ward had bullet or axe wounds inflicted in tribal wars; others were dying of AIDS; but over half the patients had been smashed up in road accidents. They could not afford good painkillers, and sobbed and screamed through the night. It looked like a scene from the First World War.

The problem is likely to become much worse. By 2020, according to the World Bank, deaths from road accidents are likely to fall by 28% in rich nations, but to rise by 83% in poorer ones {3}. By 2030, they will overtake the deaths caused by malaria {4}. But while $1.9 billion of foreign aid will be spent on tackling malaria over the next five years, the annual global aid budget for road safety is less than $10 million {5}.

This issue has been neglected partly because it is something the rich inflict on the poor, and partly because it is widely perceived as an unavoidable price of doing business: as the global transportation industry expands, so must its human costs. Governments are just beginning to wake up to the problem. But the corporations got there first.

In 1999, at the invitation of the World Bank, the motor and oil companies joined something called the Global Road Safety Partnership. It was supposed to bring together "governments and governmental agencies, the private sector and civil society organisations" {6}. But its executive committee contains no one from a civil society organisation and only two representatives of government. BP, Total, DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, Michelin and Volvo, however, are all represented {7}.

Professor Ian Roberts at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine compared the prevalence of certain words in the partnership's annual reports to their prevalence in a similar report written by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In the partnership's reports, he found a pattern of systematic neglect of pedestrians and cyclists. In the WHO's report, "speed limit" occurred seventeen times in every 10,000 words; in the partnership's reports, just once. "Pedestrian" was used 69 times by the WHO, and fifteen times by the partnership; "buses" and "cyclists" were mentioned thirteen and 32 times respectively by the WHO, and not once by the partnership {8}. "Reclaiming the streets for walking and cycling", he notes, "will not serve the interests of the car makers" {9}.

Instead, the Global Road Safety Partnership emphasised better training for drivers and better safety education for children. These measures do not interfere with the commercial interests of the transport industry. Neither, according to peer-reviewed papers Professor Roberts cites, do they work {10}.

The motor industry also appears to dominate the most prominent international body on road safety. Three weeks ago, the racing driver Michael Schumacher wrote a column - quite a good one - for the Guardian to mark Global Road Safety Week. He described himself as a member of the "independent Commission for Global Road Safety" {11}. The Commission launched the Make Roads Safe campaign, which is modelled on Make Poverty History. But how "independent" is it?

It was established by the Fe'de'ration Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) Foundation, which is run by motoring and motor sports associations. Of the eight commissioners, one is an executive of General Motors; one runs the Bridgestone Tyre Corporation; one is a trustee of the FIA Foundation; one is chairman of the FIA Foundation and a president of the Automobile Club of Italy; and one is Michael Schumacher {12}. The Commission's secretary is the director-general of the FIA Foundation.

Its report is better than the material published by the Global Road Safety Partnership. There is more emphasis on speed limits, road design and traffic management. But there are some odd gaps and contradictions. It complains that "participation by middle and low income countries in the existing international road safety organisations ... is low" and that there is a "lack of ownership" of road safety programmes by the governments and people of developing countries {13}. So why do all its own members come from the G8 nations? The Commission prescribes an "action plan" for global road safety, to be run by something called the Global Road Safety Facility. This - surprise, surprise - also turns out to have been launched and partly funded by the FIA Foundation {14}.

Most importantly, it calls for the developing nations to follow the path taken by richer countries in reducing deaths and injuries. But at no point does it mention that much of this reduction was the result of cyclists and pedestrians being driven off the roads. This is a much bigger issue for poor nations - where the great majority of people who use roads do not own cars - than for rich ones. Is this the vision: that the space now used by pedestrians and cyclists and oxcarts and rickshaws is surrendered to car drivers? If so, it might reduce fatalities, but it would also represent a classic act of enclosure, through which the rich are able to secure the resources of the poor.

Michael Schumacher is in danger of finding himself in the same position as Bob Geldof: a celebrity who claims to speak for the poor and weak, but who is informed and guided by the powerful. We need a global campaign on road safety, but it must belong to the people on whose behalf it acts.


1. All these facts come from Commission for Global Road Safety, June 2006. Make Roads Safe: a new priority for sustainable development.

2. ibid.

3. E Kropits and M Cropper, 2003. Traffic Fatalities and Economic Growth. Cited by the Commission for Global Road Safety, ibid.

4. C Mathers and D Loncar, 2005. Updated projections of global mortality and burden on disease, 2002-2030, Cited by the Commission for Global Road Safety, ibid.

5. Commission for Global Road Safety, ibid.

6. Global Road Safety Partnership, no date. What is GRSP?

7. Global Road Safety Partnership, no date. Executive Committee.

8. I Roberts, R Wentz and P Edwards, 2006. Car manufacturers and global road safety: a word frequency analysis of road safety documents. Injury Prevention 12. 320-322. doi: 10.1136/ip.2006.012849

9. Ian Roberts, pers comm.

10. Cochrane Injuries Group Driver Education Reviewers, 2001. Evidence based road safety: the Driving Standards Agency's schools programme. Lancet 358.230ュ2; I Roberts, R Norton, R Dunn, 1994. Preventing child pedestrian injuries: pedestrian education or traffic calming. Australian Journal of Public Health;18: 209ュ12. Cited by Ian Roberts, 22nd September 2001. Global road safety and the contribution of big business: Road safety policies must be based on evidence. British Medical Journal, Vol 323.

11. Michael Schumacher, 23rd April 2007. One every 30 seconds. The Guardian.

12. Commission for Global Road Safety, no date. About the Commission.

13. Commission for Global Road Safety, ibid.

14. FIA Foundation, 2005. World Bank & FIA Foundation launch Global Road Safety Facility.

Bill Totten


  • Full disclosure - I am a public health and transportation scientist serving as the North American director of Make Roads Safe - the campaign so wrongly criticized in The Guardian editorial. I have also worked with the cited Dr. Ian Roberts (in fact, we have written a paper together) and I respect his work, but in this case he, and Mr. Monbiot are quite misguided. Rather than promoting conspiracy theories, we should be working much, much harder TOGETHER to reduce road safety deaths and injuries. The FIA Foundation is the first to make road safety a political issue internationally. Make Roads Safe in North America is composed of a diverse group of safety advocates and, in fact, our most recent report on American deaths abroad promotes the use of public transportation (see and showcases American deaths only as a symptom of the greater issue of road deaths worldwide. Mr. Monbiot's false claims are refuted by Lord Robertson, a UK member of Parliament and Chair of the Global Road Safety Commission, in a subsequent Guardian article so I thought you might want to include the rebuttal in the interest of complete information (SEE BELOW). Thanks, Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH (and I do not own a car)

    We're not a creature of the motor industry. We just want to save lives

    The reduction of road traffic deaths should be an international priority, says George Robertson

    Thursday May 17, 2007
    The Guardian,,2081339,00.html

    George Monbiot is a rare breed, one of the very few commentators to raise the urgent issue of global road traffic deaths (A million road deaths every year? It's just the price of doing business, May 15). What a shame then that, having decided to address this utterly neglected issue, he instead attacks the very people who are doing most to put it on the international agenda.
    Monbiot argues that our campaign to put road safety on the G8 and UN agendas is somehow a creature of the motor industry, trying to impose industry-friendly solutions on developing countries on behalf of big business. This is nothing but a conspiracy theory.

    The Commission for Global Road Safety was set up by the FIA Foundation, an independent British charity that is a major road-safety grant-making and campaigning body with no links whatsoever to the motor industry. Indeed the foundation has taken on the motor industry over crash-test standards and, most recently, on the need for electronic stability control to be included as standard in all European cars. It also co-funds the European New Car Assessment Programme, the only independent initiative rating cars for pedestrian impact standards. I agreed to become chairman of the commission because I was appalled by the international community's inaction on road deaths in developing countries.
    The commission's focus is on encouraging the G8 and international donors to invest more in all aspects of road safety, and specifically to ensure that any investment in new road infrastructure, for example by the G8 in Africa, has safety as its first priority. Our recommendations have been endorsed by experts from across the developing world, as well as by road-safety practitioners at the World Health Organisation and the World Bank.
    · Lord Robertson of Port Ellen is chairman of the Commission for Global Road Safety

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:52 AM, May 26, 2007  

  • It must certainly not cost human lives! Transparency should be an agenda, because the road is not something to be toyed with. People have suffered serious injuries, and some have died because of neglect and recklessness. It would be disappointing to learn that they aren't well-protected by the right policies, in the first place.

    By Anonymous Liesel Basil, at 10:30 PM, July 06, 2011  

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