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Road danger
by Andy McElroy




At first glance, traffic safety does not register as a pressing development issue.

Road crashes kill people and devastate livelihoods on a huge scale in developing countries. It is now viewed as a crisis, prompting an amazing individual response as well as a radical, new approach to the issue of traffic safety.

The tale of Sonya Maruti has all the hallmarks of a Bollywood classic with a typically improbable storyline. Each evening, the "Good Samaritan" quietly leaves home while his wife and two children sleep. He sets out in his rickshaw on a nightly patrol in search of people left for dead after one of the countless road crashes in the district.

To date Sonya has saved more than 300 lives during his epic nine-year vigil in and around Panvel, in Mumbai. Each life he saves earns him enormous gratitude, as well as 12 rupees from the local police as acknowledgement for his community service.
He began his lifesaving mission in 1992 when, while working, he spotted a seriously injured couple unconscious in their damaged car. "Many vehicles passed but none stopped. I pulled over, transferred them to my rickshaw and rushed them to the nearest hospital. They survived."

Years of experience have taught him where the major danger spots are, as well as an intimate knowledge of shortcuts to the nearest clinic. "Accidents occur every night and the main offenders are truck drivers," says Sonya. "They either end up hurt or dead or leave badly damaged cars in their wake."

The local police readily acknowledge his amazing deeds. "Ambulances can take considerable time to reach accident spots. Often Sonya reaches victims first, informs the police and transfers the injured to hospital," said senior inspector Ashok Gaikwad.

After his nocturnal lookout, Sonya snatches a few hours sleep and continues as a regular rickshaw driver by day in order to feed his family. It is a truly remarkable story — better than any cinema fiction — and Sonya's deeds are nothing short of heroic.

The sad reality is that unless India radically addresses the issue of road safety, almost 85,000 people will die in 2001 on the country's highways, despite the efforts of Sonya Maruti and probably many other community-spirited citizens. It is a national disaster that attracts little attention. By contrast, this year's tragic earthquake in Gujarat — which rightly drew a huge response — killed less than one-third of the number.

Silent disasters

The situation on India's roads is worsening with the number of motorized vehicles increasing rapidly. At first glance, traffic safety does not register as a pressing development issue. Yet the hundreds of thousands of people in the developing world who are killed — and the millions more who are injured — in road crashes constitute one of the world's biggest 'silent disasters'.
Developing countries are creaking under the strain. Crash victims occupy up to 10 per cent of beds in already overstretched hospitals, ten times the rate of the United Kingdom. An estimated average of 1.5 per cent of annual gross national product — over US$ 60 billion — is lost because of road accidents, more than the entire amount of global development assistance given each year.

Many victims are also primary breadwinners and their loss or disability has a ripple effect, perpetuating the suffering and poverty of dependants. As World Bank Group President James D. Wolfensohn said: "Road safety is an issue of immense human proportions, it's an issue of economic proportions, it's an issue of social proportions and it's also an issue of equity. Road safety very much affects poor people."


The growing road safety crisis that is taking place outside of the industrialized world demands a new approach. The Federation is a partner in one such initiative that is establishing itself as a viable alternative.

The World Bank launched the Global Road Safety Partnership (GRSP) two years ago to build alliances between business, civil society and government dedicated to a sustainable reduction in the rate of road accidents in developing and transition countries.

The partnership has responded directly to the problem in 11 focus countries and GRSP chairman Ian Heggie is upbeat about results so far. "We have established effective platforms that support sustainable projects — based on known successes and owned by local stakeholders — in several countries, from Costa Rica to Viet Nam," he said.

"Several early achievements, based on sound practice, local reality and a partnership approach, have been recorded and now GRSP is addressing the next challenge of replicating and scaling up partnerships to build on initial progress."

Death toll

The issue of road safety is one that very much affects the work of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Between 1985 and 1998, 43 ICRC staff died in road crashes, many of them in developing countries. Nine people were also killed in traffic accidents while working for the Federation between 1995 and 2000.


These are encouraging words and indeed urgent action is needed to protect the likes of Sonya Maruti and the hundreds of millions of other vulnerable road users.
Work has already begun in India, one of GRSP's focus countries. The partnership has taken its first small steps towards better road safety by concentrating its effort in one city, Bangalore. GRSP is working through an already-stablished local partnership — the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF) — dedicated to improving the city in a number of areas, including road safety.

Several projects are now up and running as part of BATF's Road Safety Drive 2000 campaign. They include the mobilization of communities to create 'safe zones', the collaboration of business with police on the issue of drunk driving, and a programme for safer transport — in partnership with local business — after local authorities identified the danger of overloaded rickshaws carrying children to school.

"These are modest but solid beginnings at the grass roots which are attempting to educate and change the mindset of the population at large," said Andrew Downing, GRSP's India advisor. "From here, we can expand and have an impact at the macro level."

The Federation has been an active partner in GRSP since its launch. As well as hosting the partnership's headquarters at its secretariat, the Federation is contributing in one of the areas it has established expertise and capacity: first aid.

The experience of Sonya Maruti in India certainly supports the vital role of first aid. "Time is of the essence when it comes to transferring the injured to trauma care centres. I have picked up hundreds of people whose lives have been saved only because they were given immediate medical attention," he said.

The Global Road Safety Partnership can be contacted at

Andy McElroy
Andy McElroy is editorial officer at the Federation secretariat.

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