BANGKOK, Thailand — Eight years after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver, Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter Zoleka is pleading for the world to do better at reducing traffic deaths.
“This is a very personal issue for me,” she told a gathering of international public health and safety experts in Bangkok on Tuesday. “My beautiful Zenani was killed on a Johannesburg road by a drunk driver. She had only just turned 13. In fact, she had been a teenager for barely 48 hours.”
Noting that her grandparents “knew a thing or two” about fighting against injustice, Mandela called losing a child to a man-made epidemic “one of the greatest injustices.”
Zenani Mandela was killed just before the beginning of the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. A grieving Nelson Mandela missed the opening ceremonies of the highly anticipated world soccer match.
In the years since her daughter’s death, Zoleka Mandela has become an advocate for more action to stop what international safety experts call a widely ignored public health epidemic. She spoke at the Safety 2018 world conference on Tuesday.
Every year, 1.3 million people die on roads around the world, the conference heard. Crashes are the leading cause of death for young people between the ages of five and 29, and the numbers continue to rise.
But public health officials face a battle to get attention focused on the issue.
“Our field seems to lack the moral outrage associated with other health challenges,” said Etienne Krug, director of the World Health Organization department that oversees road traffic crashes and injuries.
“Where is the outrage?” he asked.
Part of the push to reduce traffic deaths is about perception. Public health officials say the term “accident” is symptomatic of the problem. Krug and others say traffic deaths are not accidents, but completely preventable.
“This is a man-made problem. We have created a transportation system that is killing people by the hundreds of thousands. For years, we have accepted 1.3 million deaths on the road. I don’t understand why we are still letting this happen.”
There has been progress in some developing countries, which have the highest rates of traffic deaths. But the numbers are continuing to rise.
“We need to do more,” said Krug.
The highest rates of death and injury are in the world’s poorest countries where rapid urbanization, combined with often lax safety standards and enforcement, result in high rates of traffic fatalities every year.
Canada, by contrast, has the lowest road traffic death rate in the Americas, and is significantly below traffic death rates in the U.S. But Canada’s traffic fatality rates are still double those in Sweden, which pioneered Vision Zero, which aims to have no deaths or serious injuries from collisions.
Toronto, which has adopted Vision Zero, recently launched a public awareness campaign to draw attention to the human cost of traffic deaths. The Art of Distraction campaign uses photos of personal items — a child’s purple backpack, a cyclist’s running shoes — to tell stories of traffic fatalities.
“These are peoples’ lives,” said Jacquelyn Hayward Gulati, director of transportation project design and management for the City of Toronto. “Vision Zero is about culture change.”
South Africa, meanwhile, is among the countries facing the biggest challenges to reduce carnage on its roads.
Zoleka Mandela called for leadership to end the deaths of children on the roads.
“How can it be possible that the global health community is failing to tackle the leading global killer of adolescents? Enough of the injustice of road traffic injury. No longer do we accept the senseless carnage on our roads.”
This story was produced with support from the ICFJ-WHO Safety 2018 Reporting Fellowship Program and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
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