Saving lives

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By Robert JA Basilio, Jr.

Roger (not his real name) pushed his luck.

But then again, he had no choice.

With no job and absolutely no money, he walked to the nearby highway and waited for trucks to slow down as they reached an intersection in Machakos, a town in Kenya where he lived.

If his timing was impeccable, and if the truck was right, he could jump on the vehicle, grab whatever his hands could hold on to, and hang on for dear life. This was his only way to get a free ride to Nairobi, the capital, which was an hour or two away, depending on the traffic. (Just like Roger, commuters around the world have similar risky practices, just to get rides to their destinations. In the Philippines, passengers who hang on to the rear vertical bars of jeepneys are still expected to pay their fares even though they are not seated.)

Once Roger arrived in Nairobi, he looked forward to a job at any of the countless construction sites in the city.

Helped by investments from China (with its One Belt, One Road initiative), Nairobi was in the middle of a building boom and Roger was fairly certain he would be able to snag something — anything — to help him and his family get by.

If he was lucky, he could probably get paid a minimum wage of 622 Kenyan shillings (P311) a day. But then again, he might also be inclined to accept a substantially lower amount given that roughly one in 10 Kenyan citizens of working age is unemployed. After all, jobs, even for experienced manual laborers such as himself, were hard to come by, even in Kenya, East Africa’s richest economy.

A PERILOUS RIDE
After waiting a few minutes, Roger saw his ride — a trailer truck, which could easily afford to carry a person on its side, however dangerously.

He made a run for it.

As he attempted to clutch a vertical bar on the truck’s side, Roger was hit by a motorcycle that went by so fast no one could get the license plate nor identify the driver.

“The driver simply went on his way,” Roger said in Swahili during an interview in early March with some participants of the Global Road Safety Leadership Course (GRSLC) that was held for two weeks in March in Nairobi, Kenya.

The course is a biannual course coordinated and delivered by the Global Road Safety Partnership, in partnership with Johns Hopkins University’s International Injury Research Unit (JH-IIRU). The course is made possible through the generous support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, according to its Web site (www.grsproadsafety.org).

As part of its efforts, the course’s 63 members from delegations from 23 countries — including four participants from the Philippines — visited the Machakos county hospital where Roger was confined.

Offering “hot spots” that provide immediate care in its emergency rooms, the hospital also boasts of a surgical team that is on call 24/7, making it one of the very best in the country — and perhaps in East Africa — to deal with road accidents.

With its facilities, know-how, and equipment, the Machakos county hospital and its experts did everything to save Roger’s lower left leg. But unforeseen complications arose which resulted in Roger being forced to walk with crutches for the rest of his life.

Despite the amputation, Roger is one of the lucky ones since he’s still alive.

The same goes for the others who are confined at the Machakos orthopedic ward, some of whom have become so badly dismembered by road crashes that weak-hearted visitors have been advised against entering. (One course participant who visited the ward had been moved enough to donate money to a patient. “The money I gave was nothing compared to what they were going through,” he said.)

Since road crashes have recently been considered as the third-largest killer after HIV/AIDS and malaria in Kenya, volunteers with the help of donors — including Bloomberg Philanthropies — have launched the Usalama Initiative in 2010.

Besides helping provide “emotional and practical support” for road crash survivors, the initiative has also organized volunteers who provide road safety training for school children and assist them in crossing roads safely, among others.

ROAD CRASHES CURB ECONOMIC GROWTH
Around the world, 3,000 people are killed in road crashes every single day, according to the 2015 global status report on road safety released by the World Health Organization (WHO). Most of these fatalities are from low to middle-income countries (LMICs), said the agency, which is slated to issue its 2018 report later this year.

In Kenya alone, there were 3,191 road traffic fatalities the report said, citing 2013 figures of the Kenya National Police Service.

That figure is twice the number for the Philippines.

Some 1,513 Filipinos died from road crashes in 2013, the same WHO report said, citing data from the Department of Public Works and Highways’ Traffic Accident Recording and Analysis System.

These Filipinos belong to the 1.3 million people who are killed by road crashes every year, globally, the course organizers said.

But it’s not just about the sheer number of lives that have been lost owing to rapid motorization, especially in LMICs.

It’s about long-term global economic growth as well.

After all, road crashes cost anywhere from three to five percent of gross domestic product of LMICs, the course organizers said.

“These deaths retard long-term economic growth,” said Soames Job, head of the World Bank Group’s Global Road Safety Facility in his presentation during the course’s second week.

Judy Fleiter, a lecturer representing the Global Road Safety Partnership, offered a similar but a more specific view.

“Halving road traffic injuries could translate into an additional 15% to 22% GDP per capita income growth over 24 years,” she said in one of several presentations she delivered during the two-week course. “[F]ailing to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal target to halve road deaths by 2020 accrues to about two to three percent points in unrealized per capita GDP growth for low- to middle-income countries.”

SAFE SYSTEMS FOR THE PHILIPPINES
While the Philippines has passed nearly all globally recognized laws covering road safety — save for one requiring car seats for children, a measure that is pending at the Senate — a whole lot still needs to be done to eliminate road crash deaths in the country.

For Melisa Jane B. Comafay, one of the Filipino participants in the recent road safety course, the Philippines should “start thinking in a safe systems approach.”

“We should not merely answer problems as they come along, but instead address them initially from a planning stage perspective by finding best practices that could be applied to our road safety issues,” said Ms. Comafay, a lawyer who works as a junior advocacy officer of the Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Legal Services, Inc. (IDEALS).

To make Philippine roads safer for everyone, the government should also “look into the best road safety designs that would address our real needs and not just ‘build, build, build’ roads,” she said, referring to the centerpiece infrastructure program of the Duterte administration.

But then again, owing to the government’s lack of road safety priority as well as challenges posed by the bureaucracy itself, implementation of these policies is another story altogether.

So what are local road safety advocates left with, given these challenges?

An honest to goodness communications campaign, among others, she said.

The campaign “would constantly remind everyone of the importance of our laws and why they are there in the first place — to protect road users, because we are all pedestrians,” she said. “We are all vulnerable road users. We all have a stake in the reduction and/or elimination of road crash fatalities.”

Robert J.A. Basilio, Jr. was one of four Filipinos chosen to attend the two-week Global Road Safety Leadership Course in Nairobi, Kenya in March this year.

CORRECTION: This piece was updated to correct a description of Kenya. It’s not West Africa’s richest economy, as previously written, but East Africa’s. This piece was also changed to reflect additional clarifications about the Global Road Safety Leadership course.