In 2010, the United Nations declared the Decade of Action for Road Safety, calling upon governments to take the actions necessary to reduce the 1.3 million annual traffic deaths that plague modern society. For Latin America in particular, where 60 percent of roads remain unpaved and the rate of deaths from traffic fatalities stands at twice that of high-income regions, this was and is an incredibly pressing issue. That is why, as the Decade of Action for Road Safety comes to a close in 2020, it is important to reflect on what governments have done to build safer roads in Latin America, and how they can continue to carry the torch in securing the future of the region’s most vulnerable.
Taking Action on the Ground Level
Efforts to improve road safety have traditionally fallen into one of a few categories. Awareness campaigns, such as Salvador, Brazil’s Life Not Traffic program, invest heavily in training drivers on proper road etiquette, as well as lobbying for stricter drunk-driving laws. For Salvador and other Latin American cities, in particular, educating the youth through programs like “child drivers of the future” is also a major priority, as traffic deaths are the leading cause of death for Latin Americans ages 15-29. So far, the results of these efforts are striking. In just eight years since its initial launch, Life Not Traffic has contributed to a 50 percent drop in traffic fatalities in Salvador.
Structural solutions, on the other hand, focus on pinpointing areas of improvement in regard to material conditions on the road, as well as looking at safer and more efficient ways to control the flow of traffic. The construction of roundabouts to replace traditional four-way intersections, for instance, has led to a 50-70 percent drop in traffic fatalities and a 30-50 percent drop in traffic injuries. Meanwhile, increased investments in speed and red-light cameras are also yielding promising results.
Structural solutions can also bring economic benefits, such as in the case of Tocantins, Brazil, where times of rain have historically inhibited the region’s road network, depriving Tocantins’ residents of access to Brazil’s urban population centers. To combat this issue, the World Bank has funded the construction of more than 700 concrete bridges in cooperation with local authorities, which has both increased employment and the average wage of the region’s agricultural workers. Safer, more reliable roads have also meant a rise in the percentage of children attending school in Tocantins, which has had the added effect of opening up more work opportunities for Tocantins’ female population.
Obstacles to Improvement
The World Bank’s work in Tocantins is a particularly salient example in this case, as it highlights the traditional obstacles to improving Latin America’s road infrastructure, as well as the steps necessary to overcome them. For one, there is the problem of geography. Where conditions in European and North American nations are, for the most part, agreeable to road building, tall mountains, thick jungles, expansive deserts and urban centers hamper Latin America. These, in combination with the region’s low population density, have made road-construction very costly.
However, while geographic conditions certainly make the task of building better roads more difficult, the real crux of the issue lies in the lack of funding that Latin American governments are able to devote to infrastructure. Estimates from the Inter-American Developmental Bank indicate that the region faces an annual infrastructure-spending shortfall of around $100-150 billion, due to regional governments’ issues with fiscal deficits and mounting public debts. As a consequence, programs aimed at both improving and expanding the region’s road networks frequently go underfunded, leading to the need for foreign aid and investment.
Foreign Aid Successes
Indeed, recent years in Latin American have seen an increasing number of successes in road improvements due to foreign aid, though economists estimate that still more aid is necessary before Latin America will be able to bring its infrastructure on par with the rest of the world. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, for instance, has provided $26.8 billion in infrastructure-related loans to Latin America since 2005, including financing a major highway in Bolivia that should bring significant economic benefits to the region after its completion in 2021. The United States, for its part, has also recently launched a new initiative to encourage more private U.S. financial investment into Latin America’s roads and other infrastructure.
In addition to building new roads, many new organizations have also taken root in the region with an eye on other means of improving road safety. The Latin NCAP is one such organization, launched under the umbrella of the U.N.’s Decade of Action for Road Safety, which has published over 100 safety assessments for new vehicles since 2010, helping to keep Latin America’s drivers safe before they even step in the car.
While much work remains when it comes to building safer roads in Latin America, it is undeniable that foreign aid has led to major improvements for the region’s inhabitants.
– James Roark