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Road traffic crashes leading cause of death among young people

New WHO report marks First UN Global Road Safety Week

Road traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among young people between 10 and 24 years, according to a new report published by WHO. The report, Youth and Road Safety, says that nearly 400 000 young people under the age of 25 are killed in road traffic crashes every year. Millions more are injured or disabled.

The vast majority of these deaths and injuries occur in low- and middle-income countries. The highest rates are found in Africa and the Middle East. Young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are at greatest risk in every country. Young males are at higher risk for road traffic fatalities than females in every age group under 25 years.

Unless more comprehensive global action is taken, the number of deaths and injuries is likely to rise significantly. Road traffic collisions cost an estimated US$ 518 billion globally in material, health and other expenditure. For many low- and middle-income countries, the cost of road crashes represents between 1-1.5% of GNP and in some cases exceeds the total amount the countries receive in international development aid.

Youth and Road Safety stresses that the bulk of these crashes are predictable – and preventable. Many involve children playing on the street, young pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, novice drivers and passengers of public transport.

The report points out that children are not just little adults. Their height, level of maturity, their interests, as well as their need to play and travel safely to school, mean that they require special safety measures. Also, the report says, protecting older youth requires other measures such as lower blood alcohol limits for young drivers and graduated license programmes.

Special safety measures for children

As part of the First United Nations Global Road Safety Week (23-29 April 2007), WHO is launching the report to draw attention to the high global rates of death, injury and disability among young people caused by road traffic crashes. Youth and Road Safety highlights examples in countries where improved measures such as lowering speed limits, cracking down on drink-driving, promoting and enforcing the use of seat-belts, child restraints, and motorcycle helmets, as well as better road infrastructure and creating safe areas for children to play have significantly reduced the number of deaths and injuries.

"The lack of safety on our roads has become an important obstacle to health and development," said Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. "Our children and young adults are among the most vulnerable. Road traffic crashes are not 'accidents'. We need to challenge the notion that they are unavoidable and make room for a pro-active, preventive approach. "

Youth and Road Safety is accompanied by a second and more personal document, Faces behind the figures: voices of road traffic crash victims and their families. Developed jointly by WHO and the Association for Safe International Road Travel, this book presents first-hand accounts of the experiences of victims, their families and friends following road crashes. The stories place a highly moving human face on the statistics provided by many road safety reports around the world. They reveal the physical, psychological, emotional and economic devastation that occurs during the aftermath of road traffic deaths and injuries. In particular, these accounts deepen our understanding of the enormous suffering that occurs behind each death and injury every year. They also highlight some of the initiatives undertaken by groups and individuals to improve road safety by sharing their concern, frustration and anger in order to prevent the same from happening again.

Faces behind the figures include:

  • On 16 September 2002, Jane Njawe, 42, was travelling by car with two other people from Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, to Douala in the north. An hour into the journey, a bus driving in the opposite direction tried to overtake a truck on a curve at high speed. Unable to see any oncoming traffic, the driver smashed into the car, injuring everyone in it. While Jane's companions were taken to a nearby hospital, she was inexplicably driven to a poorly equipped bush clinic. A mother of four children, including a three-year-old son, Jane died five hours later from lack of blood. Jane's husband, Pius Njawe, formed an organization called Justice and Jane to keep her memory alive and to promote road safety.

  • On 29 August 2003, Balazs Geszti, a 24-year-old Hungarian butcher, returned home with his step-brother, Peter, in the early hours of the morning from a wedding. Both had been drinking heavily. Shortly after arriving home, Balazs received a phone call from his girlfriend asking him to attend another party. Racing over in his car, he smashed into a concrete barrier at 140 km an hour in a 50 km zone. Balazs was killed on impact. Peter is now a volunteer coordinator for Habitat for Humanity. He believes that if Balazs had not been drinking – or speeding – he might still be alive today.

  • In May 2002, Sateni Luangpitak, a motorcycle taxi driver in Thailand, collided into another vehicle. Sateni, now 28, was driving at 80 km per hour. The collision threw him on to the pavement, where he hit his head and left shoulder. Despite wearing a helmet, Sateni lost consciousness. When Prayoon Muangme, a friend, realized it would take too long for the emergency services to come, he evacuated Sateni to a nearby hospital. On arrival, however, he learned that no trauma facilities were available. Prayoon took his friend to yet another clinic. Sateni was lucky his helmet had protected his head and had suffered only light injuries. Nevertheless, his collision kept him out of work and reduced his ability to earn a living.

The First United Nations Global Road Safety Week is being organized by WHO, the UN Regional Commissions and partners in a bid to promote greater awareness of road traffic incidents and to give young people a voice. Spearheading the global campaign, a World Youth Assembly will be held in Geneva, Switzerland, where young delegates from over 100 countries will gather on 23-24 April 2007 to share their experience and plan joint activities for better road safety. World leaders including the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair and stars including Moby will be giving messages to the opening of the World Youth Assembly.

"The World Youth Assembly is our opportunity to step forward and take responsibility. The time has come to make our voices heard. The Youth Declaration for Road Safety is only a first step in a long journey towards safer transportation for youth around the world," said Nelly Ghossaini from Lebanon, the 21-year-old Chair of the World Youth Assembly.

Countries and communities will mark the event throughout the world. Governments, the UN and other international agencies, as well as private sector companies, foundations and groups working towards better road safety are expected to organize hundreds of local, national and international initiatives.

For further information, please contact:

Laura Sminkey
Technical Officer, WHO, Geneva
Tel: +41 22 791 4547
Mobile: +41 79 249 3520
E-mail: sminkeyl@who.int

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