THIS coming week from May 17 to 23, 2021 marks the 6th United Nations Global Road Safety Week. This year also marks the start of the Decade for Action on Road Safety (2021-2030). The key message is that we need to protect our most vulnerable road users. If we protect them, all other road users will be protected as well.
One simple action will make a huge difference — lowering urban speed limits to 30 kilometers per hour (kph). It will save lives, it will improve health outcomes and it will push back climate change.
Globally, more than 1.35 million people die each year due to road crashes, making it one of the leading causes of death. In the Philippines, over 10,000 people were killed on roads in 2015. In Metro Manila, about 110,000 road crashes occur in a year (over 300 collisions per day). Every person injured or killed in a collision is a tragedy. The next one could be you or me or one of our loved ones.
The most vulnerable road users are those on foot or on a bicycle. All of us are pedestrians.
Whether we use a motor vehicle or not, part of our journey is on foot. Less than 10 percent of Filipino households own a car and only about one-fourth of households have a motorcycle. Those who rely on public transport, walking or cycling constitute a significant majority.
With the pandemic and physical distancing requirements, public transportation is in very short supply and more costly. This has forced many who used to take public transport to shift to walking or cycling as their means of daily travel. This means that the number of vulnerable road users is increasing every day.
Road users, whether drivers of motor vehicles or those walking or cycling, make mistakes.
There are many irritations and distractions, including our phones. Some road users may be intoxicated. And if we look at the composition of our population — about 25 percent of the population is 10 years old or younger; senior citizens and persons with disability comprise about 10 percent of the population. The potential for human error is very large.
Accepting that “humans will make mistakes” is the rationale behind the “safe system” approach to road safety. The principle is to create an environment where there will be minimal injury and very low likelihood of death when a road crash occurs. In creating this “human-proof” mobility environment, the strategy is to lower vehicle speed and design streets and vehicles so that road users are protected when the mistakes do happen.
The centerpiece of the strategy is to adopt a maximum 30-kph speed limit on all urban roads where motor vehicles and people mix. Why are vehicle speeds so important? Studies have shown that the probability of death or a major injury in a road crash is significantly lowered at speeds of 30 kph or less. A pedestrian hit by a motor vehicle traveling at 80 kph has a 60 percent likelihood of dying; the risk drops to 20 percent if the vehicle is traveling at 50 kph; at 30 kph, the risk is 10 percent or less.
Announcing the new speed limit or placing new speed limit signs on a road is usually not enough. “Traffic calming” infrastructure will be needed to shape driver behavior. The “traffic calming” approach for a given situation will depend on local needs and budgets. Barriers can be arranged along a road so that drivers have to zig-zag as they drive through, slowing down each time they turn the wheel. Speed bumps or speed tables can be placed every 30 to 40 meters. Another method to slow vehicles down is to narrow the lane width, while widening the sidewalk.
Another strategy to manage speed is to limit the use of a road. Selected bridges and roads could benefit from restricting their use to public transport, pedestrians and cyclists. This would reduce pollution and congestion while enabling the same road space to move a much greater number of people more efficiently. If making a road entirely “car-free” may be too radical, the restriction could be applied during rush hour (6 to 9 a.m.; 5 to 8 a.m.). When public transport, walking or cycling moves people more conveniently and reliably than using a private motor vehicle, more car users will shift to these sustainable transportation modes.
Another road safety option is to “pedestrianize” the road, eliminating any “through” motor vehicle traffic. Within a “pedestrianized” street, only motor vehicles owned by residents along the street are allowed to enter or exit. The benefit of a “pedestrianized” street is that the road becomes safe for walking, cycling, exercise and play, in effect serving as a neighborhood park.
We need to all get behind the 30-kph speed limit. It will protect young and old Filipinos as they move around our cities. It will attract more people to walking and cycling and reduce our dependence on motor vehicles. It will give us cleaner air and help us fight climate change. Our urban areas will become more livable at relatively little cost. It needs to be part of our new and better normal.
Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner, and public transport advocate. He can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @RobertRsiy.