Long way to go before Kuwait roads made safe

More than 120 people have lost their lives since the start of this year till the middle of May, according to Kuwait’s General Directorate of Traffic, a total of 401 fatalities took place on Kuwait’s roads in 2018; the victims were mostly young men in the prime of their lives. Though the fatalities were slightly down from the 424 people that were killed in 2017, each death was still one death too many.

Most of those killed in road accidents were victims of rash driving, either drivers and co-passengers of the involved vehicles, or innocent pedestrians. A recent regional survey showed that while improving road infrastructure led to the smoother flow of vehicles and less traffic jams, it also led to increased instances of speeding, tailgating and lane-swerving by rash drivers. This not only decreased road safety and driving experience for the other people who used the roads, but also reduced the benefits of better infrastructure by leading to more road accidents.

Traffic authorities have responded to the increased rash driving by deciding to rescind the driving licenses of erring drivers. While these measures are welcome moves to tamp down on reckless driving, there is growing realization that punishment cannot be a long-term solution.  Developing a new traffic strategy that focuses on enhancing road safety management capacity and the safety of road infrastructure, and improving post-crash response, as well as enhancing behavior of drivers, especially among young vehicle owners, by creating awareness on the ethical and social etiquette to follow while driving, are just as important in deterring rash driving, over-speeding and in general reducing traffic accidents in the country.

In line with this need, in 2013, Kuwait launched the  the National Traffic Transport Strategy (NTTS) with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and corresponding with the UN Decade of Action (2011-2020). The a$16 million partnership project with UNDP saw planners, designers, managers, and decision makers in the country receiving formation, guidance and assistance in developing the new traffic strategy. One outcome of this cooperation was the restructuring of the General Directorate of Traffic (GDT) and the establishment of the Public Authority for Roads and Transportation (PART).

Kuwait created PART in 2014 and tasked the entity with many responsibilities ranging from establishing and maintaining road infrastructure and transport networks in the country to preparing a comprehensive new transport strategy. The new plan would include an extensive rail transport system with local stations, and which would eventually link to the pan-Gulf railway network, as well as a metro system linking urban areas with business, shopping and entertainment centers. PART was also assigned to examine and certify vehicles for road worthiness, test and issue driving licenses to new drivers, create awareness on road safety and enhance the culture of public transportation in Kuwait.

Overwhelmed with responsibilities PART struggled to take-off, especially since it was hampered by other ministries such as the Public Works Ministry and the Ministry of Interior, which strongly objected to PART taking over their territory and were reluctant to hand over their traditional authority to an upstart organization. As with most things in Kuwait, despite government support, PART was sidelined for several years even as road infrastructure continued to worsen and plans to implement the public transportation network gathered dust.

In early November of last year following heavy rains, and poor maintenance of road infrastructure, many roads turned into raging rivers that washed vehicles, damaged property and injured several dozen people. The government responded to accusations of shoddy road maintenance by firing the director-general of the Public Authority for Roads and Transportation (PART), the entity that also had the responsibility of maintaining public transport infrastructure in the country.

Six months later, though there is a new director-general at the helm of PART, road and transport infrastructure remains the same, traffic congestion continues to exasperate commuters, and victims of traffic accidents keep growing. Obviously, shifting chairs is not the answer to Kuwait’s traffic and infrastructure woes. And, before any lawmaker suggests it, getting rid of expatriates is not the answer either.

The Safe System approach to road safety proposed by WHO aims to ensure a safe transport system for all road users. Such an approach takes into account people’s vulnerability to serious injuries in road traffic crashes and recognizes that the system should be designed to be forgiving of human error. The cornerstones of this approach are safe roads and roadsides, safe speeds, safe vehicles, and safe road users, all of which must be addressed in order to eliminate fatal crashes and reduce serious injuries.

Global Status on Road Safety

According to the latest World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Status Report on Road Safety, road ‘accidents’ were responsible for more than 1.35 million deaths worldwide in 2018, tantamount to one death every 24 seconds or 3,600 fatalities in a day. To put it in a more gruesome perspective, the deaths are equivalent to nearly the entire Kuwaiti population becoming victims of road accidents in a year.

More than half (54%) of the 1.35 million road fatalities in 2018 were pedestrians, two-wheel drivers and pillion-riders. Occupants inside vehicles accounted for a further 31 percent of crash victims, while the remaining 15 percent were unspecified road users.  Road accidents are now the eighth leading cause of death for all age groups worldwide, surpassing HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and diarrhea diseases.

In addition,  more than 30 million people are estimated to suffer injuries as a direct result of traffic accidents each year. Some are permanently disabled while others sustain injuries that lead to productivity and economic loss for the individuals, their families and to the nation. It is estimated that road traffic accidents cost countries on average around 3 percent of their gross domestic product each year.

However, it is a misnomer to label these traffic mishaps as “accidents”. There is nothing accidental about the incidents, in most cases the deaths and injuries are the result of preventable causes ranging from the low safety aspects and poor maintenance of vehicles to the lack of proper roads and other infrastructure, from rash driving to drinking and driving distractions.

Records show that fewer traffic accidents, and consequently fewer deaths and injuries, occur in developed countries than in low- and middle-income nations. Of the total road fatalities in 2018, a disproportionately high 93 percent occurred in low- and middle-income countries where 60 percent of all global vehicular traffic ply. By contrast, high-income countries, despite having 40 percent of vehicle traffic, accounted for only 7 percent of all traffic-related deaths last year.

Statistics from the WHO report also show that traffic-related injuries are now the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5–29 years. Young males are more likely to be involved in road traffic crashes than females. About three-quarter (73%) of all road traffic deaths were shown to occur among young males under the age of 25 years who are almost three times as likely to be killed in a road traffic crash as young females.

Rash driving, over-speeding, and distractions while driving are leading causes of death among the young. The WHO report pointed out that an increase in average speed was directly related both to the likelihood of a crash occurring and to the severity of the consequences of the crash. Studies have shown that every 1 percent increase in mean speed produces a 4 percent increase in the fatal crash risk and a 3 percent increase in the serious crash risk. Moreover, the death risk for pedestrians hit by car fronts rises rapidly by 4.5 times as speed surges from 50kmph to 65kmph. The fatality risk for car occupants in car-to-car side impacts is as high as 85 percent at 65kmph.

 

–Times Report