What do the SDG road safety targets mean for the US?

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In the run-up to the official launch of the new Global Goals at the end of September, the Foundation’s US Manager, Natalie Draisin, looks at the implications for the United States of the internationally-agreed health target on road safety.

After the inclusion of road safety targets in the final text of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the United States is faced with the reality that something must be done to change the country’s status quo of fatalities on its roads.

Why is it so urgent that the US act now to decrease its death rate on the roads? In the next five years, the UN member states will aim to ‘halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents.’ This means high income countries need to work to move from an average of 8.7, to 4 deaths per 100,000 population by 2020.

But the US is starting the race lagging behind the high income country average, hovering around 10 deaths per 100,000 over the past few years according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The past few six months are particularly concerning – total road fatalities were up 14% compared to the same time period in 2014, reaching nearly 19,000 deaths and over 2.2 million serious injuries, according to the National Safety Council. Should this trend continue, the country risks not only suffering its deadliest year on the roads since 2007, but also continuing to fall behind other high income countries. Worse yet, the country could also see a death rate worse than the middle income countries target of 7 per 100,000. Some states even have death rates worse than the current low income country average of 18.3 (Mississippi with 20.5, Montana with 22.6, and North Dakota with 20.5), and 21 states had death rates higher than the low income countries target of 12 in 2013.

Countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands have successfully reached death rates of about 3 per 100,000. In light of this, the US should not use the excuse that it started out behind in the race to settle on halving its current death rate of 10.3 to 5 deaths per 100,000. Instead, it should use the SDG to build momentum to reach and exceed the high income country target of 4 in the next five years – and then keep going. In fact, many major US cities have announced ambitious ‘Vision Zero’ strategies, aiming to design urban mobility systems in which any road traffic death is considered unacceptable.

Reducing the fatality rate on the roads in the US has been done before, and can be done again. Despite the sharp increase in road deaths over the last six months, the fatality rate is still down almost 40% from 40 years ago. The passage of the Highway Safety Act and National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966 started a process that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of lives being saved. The 50th anniversary of the Acts next year provides a timely opportunity to acknowledge how far the country has come, and how much further it must go.

The Acts helped create the State Highway Safety Offices, administered by a Governor’s Representative in each state and territory. Governors’ Representatives came together in 1967 to organize what is now the Governors Highway Safety Association, which is meeting in Nashville, Tennessee this week, bringing together road safety organizations across the country, and state and federal leaders with the power to help reduce the fatality rate on US roads.

Of course no death is acceptable, all are equally tragic, and we must not forget the faces behind the statistics. But to focus on lowering numbers, Governors’ Representatives and others have several options for prioritizing action. One approach is to target the most densely populated areas so that efforts quickly reach a concentrated population, or focus on the cities with the highest death rates on the roads. A coming together of Governors’ Representatives to influence national policy, enhance program management, and promote best practices is crucial – the US challenge lies in the 50 states and 17,000 enforcement agencies within the country, making strong state level initiatives imperative.

At a federal level, one step the US must take is to send a high-level US delegation to the 2nd Global High-Level Conference on Road Safety in Brazil, November 18-19 this year. Ministerial-level delegations from around the world will come together to discuss how the SDG targets can be implemented. With a need to not only achieve its target, but also exceed it and to at least meet the average for high income countries, the US must ensure it is at the table in Brazil.

Should you be interested in attending the conference, please visit http://www.roadsafetybrazil.com.br/en, click on ‘request an invitation,’ and be sure to begin your visa process early.