Women and Road Safety, An Interview with Nneka Henry of UNRSF

Nneka Henry, head of the United Nations Road Safety Fund (UNRSF) in Geneva, is spearheading the issue of safe and sustainable mobility, including how it affects women and men differently. The International Gender Champions sits down with her for an interview to explore this topic.

Can you please tell us what road safety has to do with women’s empowerment?

Road safety is recognized as a basic human need[1]. Indeed, safe roads and affordable transportations are fundamental conditions for women and their children to access work, education, health, and social services, including one’s social network of family, friends, and forms of entertainment. Road safety is linked to women’s economic and social empowerment, poverty eradication, safety from gender-based violence. It helps determine the extent of their freedom of choice and movement for women, young women, and girls.

We lack reliable gender-disaggregated data, but we know that men are three times more likely to be killed in reported road crashes[i]. The sudden, adverse, and long-term impact on household survival from loss of the male’s income and the burden of caring for the male’s lifelong disabilities may fall disproportionately on women and girls. This illustrates the interaction between road safety and poverty reduction policy and quality education of girls.

Road crashes can make even well-off households vulnerable to a decline in poverty.  

The impact of the loss of a family member on a poor household is indeed devastating, particularly for women and girls.

The damage of road crashes goes beyond the physical hurt, and there is a range of other hidden costs such as psychological, social and economic impact. This is the story of Habtamu Zerihun, hit by a pickup truck while walking on his way to work in Addis Ababa. The pickup truck driver was under the influence of stimulant drugs, and there were no barriers around curbs to separate and protect pedestrian road users. This tragic accident left the young man with disabilities forbidding him to return to work. The biggest pain for Habtamu, a father of three daughters, was that his children stopped going to school due to his inability to pay for their school fees, books and uniforms.

The full story here.

What makes women more vulnerable than men to road users?

Women’s risk to road traffic incidents is linked to how and how often they use the roads. While most men die in road crashes as car drivers and motorcyclists, women victims are mostly car passengers and vulnerable pedestrians.

Despite increasing progress in vehicle safety, cars are still being designed and crash-tested according to the male biological structure. Most simulated vehicle crash testing does not consider the differences between women’s and men’s body structures, limiting the extent to which car crash test ratings can predict vehicle safety for women in the case of a crash. Given the same crash configurations, statistics show that women are 47% more likely to be injured from a car crash compared to men.[ii] And, despite wearing a seatbelt, women are 17 times more likely to be killed during a car crash than men[2].

In some countries, up to 50% of road crash fatalities are vulnerable road users – people walking, cycling or using a motorcycle.

Women are more likely to be exposed to traffic risks because they make more frequent trips, as pedestrians, pick up or drop off children, run errands, or visit people. This seemingly safe non-motorized mode of transport places women on the front line of road crash risk, especially in lower-income communities and countries without a safe separation between the foot and vehicular traffic.

Furthermore, safe access to transport, especially after dark, is also an important road safety issue, in that harassment, fear of violence and other threats can increase the vulnerability of female road users.

What are the solutions to improve the situation for women and road safety, and what approach does UNRSF take?

The first thing to say here is that road traffic deaths and injuries are predictable and preventable – through a safe system, an approach focused on improving road user behaviour such as enforcing speed limits and the use of approved safety devices; improving roads and infrastructure such as ensuring proper street lighting and ensuring safe separation between pedestrians and vehicles; and improving vehicle safety through compliance with international safety standards.

It is essential to note that everyone has a role to play. Government representatives, including parliamentarians, are well placed to legislate for and put the resources to enforce speed limits and the use of safety devices such as passenger seat belts, which ultimately protect women as pedestrians and car passengers. The private sector, including infrastructure investment entities, can also ensure safety is a core feature of future roads and infrastructure projects through adequate street lighting, footpaths and separation of pedestrians and vehicles. Civil society and academia also have an important advocacy role, including raising awareness on the most prevalent road safety issues that affect women in their locality or country, which could be sexual harassment at blind spots. Finally, as individuals, we can all do our part in sharing the road safely, from driving with care to limiting distracted road use to being visible with car and bicycles lights or reflective clothing.

The UN General Assembly recently adopted the resolution 74/299 proclaiming the Second Decade of Action for Road Safety 2021-2030, with the ambitious target of halving road traffic deaths and injuries by 2030, which is referred to in SDG 3.6. The resolution encourages the Member States to fully integrate a gender perspective into all policymaking and policy implementation related to mobility and road safety.  Providing safe, affordable, accessible, and sustainable transport systems for women is another way of improving road safety targeted in SDG 11.2.

UNRSF is working closely with national authorities, regional bodies, civil society, the private sector, UN agencies and the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Road Safety, Mr. Jean Todt, to support inclusive and sustainable road safety projects. Through UNRSF projects, road safety measures empower women through safer pedestrian walkways in Ethiopia, speed enforcement equipment training in Argentina and safer imported used cars in West Africa.

Later in the year, UNRSF will also convene sustainability managers and focal points from government, UN agencies, companies, and civil society to share their work and lessons on the nexus between gender and road safety. A key outcome of these ongoing discussions will be identifying concrete ways that UNRSF and its partners can yield mutual benefits and high impact for gender equality and road safety development goals for years to come.

[2] The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study is highlighted in Keith Barry's article for Consumer reports "New Data Expands on Why Women Have a Greater Risk of Injury in Car Crashes".