Every year, 1.25 million people around the world die in a road traffic accident. 90% of these deaths occur in low and middle-income countries. UHasselt is attempting to reverse this trend.
Safe traffic, a question of health? The World Health Organisation (WHO) believes it is. After all, in addition to the 1.25 million road traffic deaths, 20 to 50 million people are injured every year, often resulting in a lifelong disability. With a growing economy and population, this figure only seems to be growing. Road traffic accidents are the main cause of death among young people aged between 15 and 29. Economies also suffer as a result. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - more specifically SDG3.6 - consequently aim to halve the number of road traffic deaths and injuries by 2020.
'Mobility and road safety must be tackled on three fronts: people (behaviour), society (policy/environment) and modes of transport (mobility),' says Patricia Hellriegel of the University of Hasselt. She provides support for a Masters degree in Mobility Sciences, with a focus on 'Road Safety in the South'. Thanks to the Flemish inter-university development cooperation (VLIR-UOS), 12 students from the South can receive a scholarship there. 'In order to make road traffic safer, we need to look beyond infrastructure. Separate lanes for cars, cyclists, buses and pedestrians can make traffic much smoother and safer. But people's behaviour also needs to change accordingly. What is the point in having 2 clearly marked lanes if there are 4 cars driving side-by-side and the traffic signals are not respected? Moreover, society needs to be able to impose rules and envisage fines for offenders'.
What is the point in having 2 clearly marked lanes if there are 4 cars driving side-by-side and the traffic signals are not respected?
Since the start of this academic year, UHasselt has been working with the Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam). In the long term, the university intends to set up a Master's programme on mobility and road safety. In Vietnam, there are 22,000 road traffic deaths per year, compared with 700 in Belgium.
'Nevertheless, Vietnam has already made great efforts in the area of road infrastructure, including with the support of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank,’ says Hellriegel. ‘In large cities, for example, they are working on modern public transport and computer-controlled transport technology. This includes technology to provide drivers with traffic information. The hope is to achieve smart transportation in the near future. But as a Vietnamese teacher put it: there is still a lack of smart people. Traffic is so chaotic that the smart systems cannot handle it. And what is the point of public transport if no one uses it? Inhabitants prefer to use a scooter taxi rather than public transport. This is very dangerous, because people do not always wear a helmet, especially children.’
As such, context and behaviour are crucial elements in any plan that aims to tackle road safety. For example, in order to change behaviour, the government can organise road traffic education at school and raise awareness among parents. Or require the use of a decent helmet.
The Master's in Road Safety at UHasselt therefore also pays a lot of attention to context and behaviour. Master's students are required to develop cases from their country. A number of PhD students also get involved. A Vietnamese PhD student is working on reducing reckless behaviour on the part of motorcyclists. A PhD student from Tanzania is studying the role that public transport can play in reducing poverty in Dar Es Salaam. Incidentally, Tanzania is the next country where UHasselt intends to develop a Master's degree in Mobility Sciences.
Workshops will be organised in Vietnam together with government departments. 'Governments are increasingly aware that traffic requires a holistic approach,’ explains Hellriegel. This will be necessary in order to halve the number of road traffic accident victims by 2020, as envisaged in SDG3.6.