Are Zero Road Deaths Possible?

Hans Michael Kloth, International Transport Forum (ITF). Today’s post is also being published on the ITF’s Transport Policy Matters blog.

Every year around the globe, 1.25 million people are killed in traffic – about the population of a city like Munich, Stockholm or Dallas. Up to 50 million are seriously injured. Road crashes kill more people than malaria or tuberculosis and are steadily working their way up the top ten causes of death worldwide, forecast to rise from currently ninth place to fifth by 2030. Among 15 to 29-year olds, they are already the most common cause of death. The human tragedies behind these stark figures are as dramatic as the economic impacts: Road fatalities and serious injuries cost many countries an estimated 2 to 5% of their GDP.

Clearly, this situation is unsustainable. The United Nations’ “Decade of Action for Road Safety”, launched in 2011 with the aim of stabilising the number of road fatalities and then beginning to bring them down by 2020, was an important step to acknowledging that action is required at a global level to stop the daily carnage on the world’s roads. Then, last year, the UN upped the ante by including an even more ambitious road safety target in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Goal 3.6 calls on the international community to halve the number of road deaths and injuries by 2020.

But in order to meet this target, more than 400 road deaths would have to be prevented every single day for the next four years, not to speak of injuries. Yet with the number of cars growing rapidly in many emerging economies, so is the death toll there: Powerful, vehicles on inadequate roads, drivers with little training, inadequate rules and weak enforcement form a deadly mix that is not going to disappear easily.

A reboot for road safety policies

In developed economies, meanwhile, the downward trend that marked the past three decades (and saw the death toll in the UK, for instance, fall in 2015 to almost 20% of the 1966 peak) seems to be coming to an end: Fatality rates in many of the best-performing countries are levelling out and in some cases rising again, notably among vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, cyclists or seniors.  A reboot for road safety policy is thus urgently needed, as the approaches that brought success in the past no longer deliver the returns they once did, or are overwhelmed by an avalanche of cars.

Inspiration comes from a group of countries that have broken with the traditional paradigm in road safety, which is to fix crash hotspots and try to make road users behave more responsibly with a lot of stick and a few carrots. Nations like Sweden or the Netherlands, but also metropolises like New York City have made it their official policy to try to eradicate road deaths. This approach, known as “Vision Zero”, starts from the premise that the loss of human life as the price for mobility is unacceptable – and that the mobility system should thus function in a way that poses as few deadly risks as possible.

This approach has been followed for decades in areas like occupational safety, where machinery has long been designed in a “forgiving” way, so that if operators make a mistake it will not kill or maim them – think of a circular saw that stops automatically if a limb gets too close for comfort. This “Safe System” approach is not new to transport, either transport – aviation and rail operations would be unthinkable without it, as we would not want a single person’s mistake make a plane crash or trains collide.

Where humans err

Road traffic has yet to embrace the Safe System. Media stories regularly remind us that “human error” was the involved in this or that horror crash. Subtext: While all systems functioned, unfortunately the human didn’t, so there was nothing that could be done. Based on this view, governments spend billions on enforcement and the education of road users. But what is the price tag to get every single citizen to behave correctly all the time?  Achieving 100% compliance is of course impossible. Humans make mistakes even if they are well-trained, willing to follow rules and capable of doing so. All of us who have turned our head while at the wheel to see what the kids are doing on the back seat know this is true.

The Safe System approach that underpins “Vision Zero” accepts that humans will fail. From that principle, the challenge becomes to organise the traffic ecosystem in such a way that human mistakes do not cause serious harm. Here a second principle of the Safe System comes into play: The human body can only absorb a certain amount of kinetic energy before serious injuries occur. Again, a simple truth, too often disregarded. Taken seriously, it has wide implications for speed management, mixing traffic or designing infrastructure.

The third principle of the Safe System is shared responsibility. If the aim is to avoid serious harm, it’s just not good enough to blame the driver who hit a tree, or the elderly lady who stepped on the pedestrian crossing without looking. In a Safe System, the agency managing forestation understands that its actions can have an impact on road safety, as does the urban planner who will foresee speed bumps that force cars to slow down at crosswalks.

Will self-driving cars solve the road safety problem?

The fourth and final guiding principle for traffic as a Safe System is as straightforward: You cannot address road safety piecemeal. All parts of the system need to interlock to reinforce each other, so that when one part fails to break the chain of events leading to a serious incident, the others will still protect humans from injury or worse.

Technology will go a long way to making road traffic safer. Alco locks, automatic braking, intelligent speed assistance, electronic stability control and the like will make lethal errors less likely no doubt. Self-driving cars, many hope, will solve the road safety problem by making error-prone human drivers superfluous. But autonomous driving is not a silver bullet. Forecasts put sales of self-driving vehicles at 11.8 million or about 2.7% of the global car fleet in 2035. And the vast majority will be sold in developed world, while fully 90% of road fatalities occur in low- and middle income countries. The impact of self-driving cars on road safety will hardly be noticeable for another generation or more.

There are other misconceptions about how Vision Zero works. It does not mean, for instance, that there will be no more crashes. There might even be more, because the Safe System is focused on avoiding serious injuries, not necessarily accidents. Take roundabouts: It is not rare that there are more collisions at roundabouts than at standard intersections. But because they rarely involve impacts at a 90-degree angle and occur at lower speeds, far fewer severe injuries result.

Ultimately, can there really ever be zero road deaths? On a global level, probably not. But looking at individual segments it is already happening: There are at least three European cities with more than 250 000 inhabitants that have not had a single road fatality in over a year, according to German safety specialist Dekra. In Sweden, not a single child was killed in a bicycle accident in 2008. On this level, zero road deaths as a target is not utopian – and then: if it can be done for one group or region or make of car, it can probably also be done for others as well. If governments take the political lead and bring all those together who can and should make it happen, it can work.

Let’s give the Safe System a chance to save lives.

Useful links

Click to download the citation

Today, the ITF is being awarded a Prince Michael of Kent International Road Safety Award for “Zero Road Deaths and Serious Injuries: Leading a Paradigm Shift to a Safe System” and its global road safety work. The report reviews the experiences of countries that have adopted Vision Zero and the Safe System and provides guidance for leaders who seek to drastically reduce road deaths in their communities.

Air pollution: Tyre and brake fatigue compound an exhausting problem

Danger ahead
Danger ahead

Shayne MacLachlan, OECD Environment Directorate

Anyone else feeling exhausted by all this drum humming about air pollution? Indeed it appears the fumes won’t be dissipating any time soon as we consider the extent to which tyre and brake rubbish exacerbate the problem. The European Commission says exhaust and non-exhaust sources may contribute almost equally to total traffic-related PM10 emissions. A few months ago, I was proposing (on this very Insights blog) that electric cars are essential in fighting filthy air pollution in urban areas because humans are unwilling to relinquish the comfort of their vehicles. Since then, I find myself mulling hard after this “alarmingly obvious” realisation that electric cars use tyres and brakes too! Even if they emit less of the harmful fine particles than conventional vehicles, please do feel free to file that blog in the “seemed like a good idea at the time” folder. And to turn insult to injury, I see that my own colleagues at the OECD have just published new data on PM2.5 emissions which did little to ease my blushes.

Fine particles vs coarse particles

A lot of non-exhaust pollution from tyres and brakes winds up in rivers, streams and lakes. They produce particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) which is more harmful for humans than gas pollutants like ozone and NO2. Fine particulate matter penetrates deep into your lungs and cardiovascular system. New research has even discovered tiny particles of pollution inside samples of brain tissue. The OECD is amongst a few international organisations proudly leading the fight against ambient air pollution. And rightly so, with 80% of the world population exposed to PM2.5. Outdoor air pollution causes 3.7 million premature deaths a year and 1 in 8 people die from filthy air. OECD Environment Director, Simon Upton recently stated that air pollution is not just an economic issue, but also a moral one. He urges governments to stop fussing over the costs of efforts to limit pollution and start worrying more about the even larger costs they will incur if they continue to allow it to go unchecked.

Airpollution 2016 deaths loss 7.9.16

Dead “tyred” but rolling on

Tyre rubbish is the 13th largest source of air pollution in Los Angeles, California, a city famous for its smog. A recent study showed links between PM2.5 particles and the daily death rate in 6 Californian counties. When the PM2.5 count was high, so was the death rate. Then there’s nanoparticles, ultrafine particles used in tyres. Manufacturers didn’t know it at the time but research now contends possible links to lung cancer from recycling some of the 1 billion dead tyres used in, for example, the surfaces of playgrounds. Some are calling it “the new asbestos”. The complexity of the problem is evident: there are over 1 billion cars on the road globally and on top of that just as many motorbikes and scooters. Add to that the pneumatic tyres used on trucks and public transport such as metro train systems and buses and we have a considerable source of road rubber. A road with 25,000 vehicles using it each day can produce up to nine kilograms of tyre dust per kilometre. That’s only ¼ of the 100,000 cars that use the Champs-Elysées each day so that makes at least 36 kilograms of tyre pollution a day on the world’s most famous street.


Bliss ignorance until my tyre burst

When I think back 10 years, sharing my time between the “not so clean” cities of London and Paris, I really had no idea that the air in these places was so bad. I recall often emptying my nostrils of its black contents after using underground transport, but now learning about the added impact of tyre and brake rubbish, I’m not really sure being better informed is better—at least from a personal health standpoint. I have friends in Paris that actively avoid Châtelet and other central metro stations for a number of reasons, one of those being the eye-watering pollution. The metro trains’ brakes and tyres are contributing to this “perfect pollution storm in a subterranean teacup”. Sometimes you can find between 70-120 micrograms of PM10 per m3 down there with peaks at 1,000 micrograms per m3 trapped in the station. In comparison, the average concentration of PM10 outside is around 25-30 micrograms per m3.

So what can we do?

In an ideal world, we would ditch cars completely, but I’m not sure we’re ready to take that step yet. However, several cities are working on implementing policies that will ban or severely reduce the amount of cars. Oslo announced a plan to ban all cars from its city centre in 2019; and Norway is in the process of preparing a bill that would issue a nation-wide ban of the sale of petrol-powered cars. In places such as Tuscany, cars are banned in city centres except for residents. Others park their car just outside and then take public transport. This is common in the UK too. This means that when there are more people in the centre during the day, there are fewer cars, meaning fewer people are exposed. Hopefully, other cities and nations will be inspired by such drastic changes in transportation methods and follow suit. There are certainly enough reasons to do so.

Play the cards dealt and work towards a better hand

It’s hard not to feel we’ve exhausted our current options.  I’ve gone through several cycles of choosing my methods of transportation and have ended up cycling—literally and figuratively. Do bicycle tyres contain rubber (though they emit precious little)? Yes; and so do bus and some metro train tyres, as well as motorbikes and scooters. We are left with only imperfect options. They won’t solve the problem, but they can reduce it and that’s something to be optimistic about. As with many actions that influence health and the environment, human behaviour and choices matter massively. Choosing the least damaging option of getting around your town means the bicycle is still a great option. It might also be worth trying to avoid times in which the pollution levels are the highest: 9h, 12h and 18h in many cities. But of course the exercise and associated heavy breathing whilst riding, exposes you to the risk, even though you are contributing least to the problem. So while the thought of all that damaging pollution is ever so “tyring”, it seems that the pollution, including from brakes and tyres itself might also leave you feeling worse for wear.

An international deal on air pollution

WHO guidelines indicate that by reducing PM10 pollution from 70 to 20 micrograms per m3, air pollution-related deaths could be reduced by roughly 15%. Staging a climate COP (Conference of the Parties) style conference to address air pollution emissions seems like a good start. Who could disagree that setting limits for polluting emissions from all sources is an absolute minimum requirement to give our lungs and environment a breather. Moving forward, it’s crucial we keep pushing governments to come up with innovations and policies that vigorously tackle air pollution issues. Governments also need to ensure that people are aware of the issues and help them make the best choices. In the meantime, we all have to play the cards we’re dealt and make a conscious effort to choose least polluting options.

Useful links

The Economic Consequences of Outdoor Air Pollution

Health Impacts of Road Transport

OECD data on emissions:

Air pollution, the invisible killer

Click to read the report
Click to read the report

Today’s post, marking World Environment Day,  is from OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría

Air pollution has become the biggest environmental cause of premature death, overtaking poor sanitation and a lack of clean drinking water. According to the WHO, more than 3.5 million people are being killed each year by the air that they breathe in urban areas, and the number is rising. Air pollution now kills twice as many people as HIV/AIDS. That’s the stark message from the latest OECD report, The Cost of Air Pollution: Health Impacts of Road Transport.

There is an economic price to pay too. One of the tools used to quantify the costs associated with air pollution is the Value of Statistical Life (VSL), which estimates the value people attach to avoiding premature death from pollution. VSL can thus illustrate relative benefits of different policy options in terms of their effects on people’s wellbeing. On the basis of this methodology, the report shows that the cost of deaths and illness from air pollution increased by about 10% between 2005 and 2010, reaching USD 1.7 trillion in OECD countries alone.

To put such a huge number into perspective, let’s take the case of Germany, where our report was launched. Here, the economic costs of deaths from air pollution were about USD 150 billion in 2010. That’s the equivalent of half of Germany’s general government health expenditure.

Two of the most prevalent and dangerous forms of air pollution are particulates and ozone. Fine particulate matter (PM) can enter the lungs and help to spread harmful substances through the body. Nitrogen oxides (NOx) react with sunlight to produce ozone and contribute to the formation of particulates. These air pollutants may have various health impacts including asthma, lung cancer, respiratory problems and heart disease. Older people are especially vulnerable, so population ageing increases the number of people at risk.

Road transport is responsible for roughly half the air pollution in OECD countries, and up to 90% of that is from diesels. Almost all OECD countries tax diesel less than gasoline, except the UK, US and Switzerland. There is no environmental justification for this. Diesel is responsible for more local air pollutants such as NOx and PM than gasoline, although volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from gasoline-driven vehicles can also contribute to smog. Diesel also causes higher CO2 emissions per litre of fuel than gasoline.

True, you can drive farther on a litre of diesel than a litre of gasoline, but the benefits of the greater fuel efficiency are entirely captured by the private driver. And to the extent that higher fuel efficiency makes driving cheaper, there is an incentive to drive farther, as the evidence tends to show.

In many countries, the majority of new cars coming onto the market are diesels – which, in spite of gradually stricter vehicle emission standards, contribute to aggravate local air pollution. The data provided by car manufacturers tends to underestimate real-world emissions, especially diesel vehicles. There are important differences between the test-cycle emissions of air pollutants that vehicle emission standards regulate and real-world emissions of the same substances from the vehicles in question.

In China, India and many other countries, a shift to diesel is compounding an upward trend in emissions as vehicle growth outpaces the adoption of tighter emission limits. Some of the worst air pollution is taking place in fast-growing cities like Beijing and New Delhi. China has one fifth of the world’s population but accounts for nearly two-fifths of the global death toll linked to outdoor air pollution. India has far fewer air pollution-related mortalities, but deaths from ambient air pollution are rising quickly – around 12% from 2005 to 2010.

What can be done? The OECD has used the VSL methodology to estimate what people in different countries would be willing to pay to avoid deaths caused by air pollution. Governments can use this information to determine the stringency of the measures that should be applied to reduce pollution. The new estimates indicate that people are willing to pay more for clean air than previously thought.

Currently, drivers pay to enjoy personal mobility, but not for the damage they do to other peoples’ health. People want governments to do something about this because they are powerless to solve the problem by acting individually. Governments on the other hand know that if they take action, they will impose costs on car manufacturers and drivers. But if they do not, the “cost” of illness and premature death falls on the general population. The VSL allows governments to weigh up both sets of costs.

Estimates of VSL vary among countries: generally the richer the country, the more people will be willing to pay to avoid death, simply because they have more disposable income they can use to reduce their risk of death from air pollution. As a result, the VSL in countries like China or India is lower than in OECD countries. This does not mean that life is worth less in those countries, but rather that people are not able to pay more to reduce the risk of death.

The benefits of well-designed measures to reduce air emissions should easily outweigh the costs. One very obvious measure would be to remove any incentives that favour the purchase of diesel over gasoline cars. A further tightening of vehicle emission standards should also be considered, combined with measures that make test-cycle emissions more similar to emissions under normal use. Measures should also be identified to help mitigate the impact of air pollution on vulnerable groups, such as the young and the old.

Our report provides us all with a “wake-up call”. We have important evidence of the scale of the problem. We now need to work together to tackle it. We literally need to design better policies for better, and longer, healthier lives.

Useful links

Managing our natural resources: can we do more with less? (OECD Insights blog)

OECD work on climate change

OECD work on material resources, productivity and the environment

OECD work on resource productivity and waste

OECD work on biodiversity, water and natural resource management

Avoiding death by diesel

One for each lung
One for each lung

Today’s post is by  Simon Upton, head of the OECD Environment Directorate, founder and Chair of the Round Table on Sustainable Development, and former New Zealand environment minister.

If I proposed the building of a large industrial enterprise that would lead to the early death of around 40,000 people, I strongly doubt that the idea would survive the evening news.  Yet air pollution from diesel-fuelled road transport kills an estimated 40,000 people a year in France – that’s roughly ten times the number of people who die in road accidents.  Unlike a large, easy-to-target industrial plant, the culprits are millions of mobile combustion sites that whiz around carrying the very people who would oppose my large plant.

At global, regional and national levels, air pollution poses a major challenge to public health.  The OECD’s Environmental Outlook to 2050 projects that between now and 2050, the number of people who die globally from exposure to particulates will more than double from 1.5 million to 3.5 million. Not all of that can be attributed to road transport emissions. But it is a very significant contributor and is getting worse in emerging economies too as rising affluence brings with it increased personal mobility.

Increased mortality also carries a heavy economic cost.  That’s obvious just from anecdotes.  It cannot be good for Beijing’s economy that significant numbers of highly skilled people want to leave or not come there in the first place because of the risk air pollution poses, particularly to their children who are growing up in a soup of particulate and noxious gases.  But these economic costs are quantifiable and they are serious in most developed economies.

One of the tools used to quantify costs is the Valuation of Statistical Life (VSL) which puts a cash value on a human life. Many people don’t like politicians quantifying life or death trade-offs in monetary terms.  However, not making such judgments doesn’t avoid the trade-offs – it just hides them from view. An OECD meta-analysis of VSL estimates suggests a figure of €3.5 million per statistical life in the EU27 for example. This is higher than the €1 or €2 million used by the EU Commission in analyses of policies to limit air pollution, and implies that some policies excluded by the EU may in fact be cost-effective.

How could policy interventions be improved so as to reduce air pollution from road transport and improve human health?

First, apply the policy instruments as close as possible to the problem you are trying to tackle.  For CO2 emissions, the policy instrument of choice is a tax related to the carbon content of the fuel since CO2 emissions are directly linked with that carbon content. For NOx and other exhaust pipe pollutants, the link with the amount of fuel used is not so direct.  The way the vehicle is driven and the type of engine technology is determinant.  Similarly, noise and congestion are not directly linked to fuel-use.  For all these social costs, the ideal policy instrument is road user charges that vary with the place and time of driving, and with the environmental characteristics of the vehicles.

For local air pollutants, any charging or taxing regime should use real world emissions measures, not artificially optimistic test scenarios.  There is a large and widening gap between the emissions standards that countries are imposing and emissions under normal driving conditions. There may have been no real improvement in NOx emissions from diesel vehicles in European countries since the mid-1990s and while there has been some reduction in particulates emissions, there has been an increase in the amount of NO2 from diesel vehicles.

Almost all OECD countries apply much lower tax rates on diesel fuel than on petrol.  There is no conceivable environmental justification for this.  Diesel is responsible for more local air pollutants such as NOx and PM than gasoline – although volatile organic compound (VOC)  emissions from petrol-driven vehicles also can contribute to smog problems in some places. On the CO2 score, diesel is also more polluting, causing higher emissions per litre fuel than petrol.  The fact that you can drive further on a litre of diesel than a litre of gasoline means the benefits of the greater fuel efficiency are entirely captured by the private driver.  And to the extent that high fuel efficiency makes driving cheaper, there is an incentive to drive further – and there is evidence that this tends to be the case with the result that CO2 emissions are not reduced.

An increasing number of cities apply congestion charges, but nationwide road-charging systems are only used in Switzerland, and only for heavy goods vehicles. Some countries have motorway charging systems for heavy goods vehicles that include environmental components, and France and Italy for instance have infrastructure funding systems for all vehicles on their motorways. Given that coverage is partial, traffic can simply divert to non-charged routes, thus redistributing the environmental load.

If the current patchwork quilt of measures is far from ideal, how in a pragmatic way might it be improved?  If a road pricing system is deemed unfeasible for the present, the best approach would be to maintain the current system of fuel taxes but announce the gradual phase-in of a significant increase in tax rates on diesel fuel. After, say, 7-10 years, there would be a significantly higher tax on diesel than on petrol.  Such a timeframe would give both car owners and manufacturers time for the stock of vehicles to turn over to reflect the new pollution priorities.

In principle this could meet the bulk of the pollution reduction objectives that worry people.  If taxes on motor vehicles were maintained – say for fiscal reasons – then it would make sense to take account of local air pollutants in the calculation of tax rates, as Israel has done.

Finally, any package of measures should involve a revision of emission standards to better reflect real-world driving.

Useful links

Simon Upton was one of the key speakers at the EU’s Green Week conference held in Brussels on 4-7 June

OECD work on the environment

Economic evaluation of health impacts due to road traffic-related air pollution: An impact assessment project of Austria, France and Switzerland