What does COVID-19 mean for road safety?

With nearly every country around the world either battling to cope with outbreaks of the COVID-19 virus or preparing and monitoring in anticipation, people’s lives have changed dramatically in the last month. It has implications for nearly every area of our lives and our work. Road safety is no exception. We unpack several areas below with inputs from our members and other sources. 

What impact will COVID-19 have on mobility and safety?

  • Less people are traveling 

Work and travel restrictions in many countries mean that overall, it is likely that less journeys are being made. For road safety, this may be an upside: less journeys should theoretically mean less crashes. Viviam Perrone, Asociación Civil Madres del Dolor, Argentina, points out that “Some radio programs and news reels are showing empty streets and realizing that it’s true that there are no road crashes because of this, but what will happen when we all go out again? … we should learn to life with our foot off the accelerator when we return to the streets.”

The reduction in travel has also been connected to reduced pollution levels in China where the pandemic was first identified and containment measures applied.  Experts estimate that between 50,000 – 75,000 premature deaths related to air pollution may have been saved over two months due to the lockdown.

  • Less people are taking public transport

Less people are taking public transport, either because transit services have been cancelled partially or completely, or because people are avoiding it because they fear infection. Mass transit usually safer than other methods of transport, better for the environment, and reduces congestion. However, it means that people are in close contact with one another for extended periods of time making it easy for the virus to spread.  

If people choose to use their private cars instead of taking public transport, pollution and crash rates could increase. Instead, however, this is an opportunity for governments and activists to promote cycling and walking, increasing the sustainability of their cities. 

Availability of safe public transport also raised equality issues. Many low-paid workers may be forced to continue using public transport, because they are unable to work from home, cannot afford to stay home, and may not have access to a private car or motorcycle. This is also true of key workers, such as medical staff, whose health and safety we will all rely on during the pandemic. How authorities are keeping these vulnerable and essential groups safe is a key mobility concern. See resources from the Transformation Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI) below. 

  • Road safety implementation, policy, and enforcement may stall for now

As governments focus their attention on addressing the pandemic in their countries, other priorities are scaled back. This is likely to mean delays and cancellation of planned legislation and infrastructure implementations in the short-term. Several countries including the U.S. and various countries in Europe have temporarily relaxed regulation on driver hours for truck drivers transporting medical supplies and consumer goods. The pandemic may also mean less police capacity for enforcement. In New South Wales, Australia, Julie Power and Lucy Cormack, reporting for the New Sydney Herald, write that random breath testing of drivers will be reduced, partly to save resources and partly because of the risk of transmitting COVID-19. 

For safety activists, this also means less attention for behavior change campaigns and advocacy. Charlie Mock, Professor of Global Health, University of Washington, notes that “In general, it would seem that most of the public will be distracted, from road safety messages and that perhaps some of what we road safety advocates might usually be doing might need to wait until COVID comes under control.” 

  • Emergency services are stretched: this will impact road victims

Both Valentina Pomatto, Advocacy Officer, Humanity and Inclusion, and Charlie note the increased risk for road crash victims during the Coronavirus pandemic. Says Valentina, “Hospitals are going to be (if they are not yet) overwhelmed to respond to the Covid-19 emergency. This means less beds in ‘intensive care’ units available, slower response by ambulances.” Charlie adds that “There is even more reason than usual to drive safely (including obeying speed limits), to avoid alcohol-impaired driving, and to use proper restraints. There is also good reason to avoid driving unless you really need to.”  

What does this mean for road safety NGOs?

As a community, we find ourselves in challenging times. Now is not the time for us to push new legislation or initiatives with our governments, unless they are connected to the pandemic; events such as school workshops, training, street events and campaigns, and meetings are cancelled; media is focused on COVID so safety messages struggle to be heard; and funding is being channeled toward the pandemic effort.

NGOs are adapting their messaging to incorporate the COVID message within their messaging, such as Fundação Thiago de Moraes Gonzaga, which has been using social media cards and Instagram stories to push the message to stay home, but if you must travel, how to stay safe. Others, such as the Association for Safe International Travel, are reconnecting with their network and viewing it, in the short-term, as a useful planning period. Many are thinking about the long-term impact and how to adapt. The Alliance will be holding a series of calls for NGOs to discuss what the pandemic means for road safety, how we respond now, and how we equip ourselves for new challenges and ways of working. Sign up HERE

What can we learn from the Coronavirus public health campaign?

The Coronavirus pandemic shows us what can be achieved through government action and community mobilization. As Valentina says, “People will mobilize if they perceive that it is an urgent emergency.”

Ema Cibotti, ACTIVVAS, Argentina, draws the parallel between the public health crisis we are seeing now and the result of inaction that has lead to the level of road deaths on our streets: “It will be the same as what inaction in road safety means. Because COVID-19 is also avoidable in its deadly consequences if countries had robust public health systems.” Through it however, she raises the hope that the systemic changes needed to fix the public health system will also enable road safety activists to be better understood, “Our NGO has a #hashtag that we use a lot which is #RoadHealth. We created it working together with the Trauma Foundation in Argentina and I am sure that [in future, when the pandemic has passed] more and more there will be a better understanding of what we are saying.”

Activists should watch the progress of these measures and what motivates people to act. The scale of what we are seeing is unprecedented, but there are elements that we can learn from for our own advocacy when life returns to normal.

Useful links from around the sector

International Transport Forum (ITF): ITF are tracking the response of countries in transport regulation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Transformative Urban Mobility Network (TUMI): Tumi have a range of resources including best practices from around the world, webinars sharing learnings from Shenzhen, China, practices from other disease outbreaks and more.

Observatorio Criminológico de la Seguridad VialTips and a public health video for those driving during the pandemic (in Spanish).

A selection of interesting articles referenced in this article

Transformation Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI):  The Covid-19 Outbreak and Implications to Public Transport  

G-Feed: COVID-19 Reduces Economic Activity

New Sydney Herald: Stopping roadside breath-testing in response to COVID-19 will lead to road deaths, experts say

Streets Blog USA: Lowering Speed Limits will Help Stop COVID-19


Image: Philip Wyers on Unsplash