19 May 2021


Road traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among people aged 5 to 29 years and are among the 10 leading causes of death in all age groups. Low- and middle-income countries are heavily affected, accounting for 93 per cent of all road traffic deaths.1 This article examines how the United Nations system is working to improve road safety throughout the world, and how safer roads can contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The role of the United Nations system

Road safety is a major concern for the United Nations. Many entities within the United Nations system contribute to road safety directly or indirectly through their work in related areas, such as cities and human settlements, child health, road construction, labour, telecommunications and the environment. Five interrelated roles played by the United Nations to improve road safety are highlighted below.

The first role is to establish road safety as a political priority. To draw the attention of Member States to this issue, the United Nations General Assembly, by resolutions 64/255 of 2 March 2010 and 74/299 of 20 August 2020, respectively, proclaimed the period 2011–2020 the Decade of Action for Road Safety and the period 2021–2030 the Second Decade of Action. To sustain high-level political engagement, the General Assembly further welcomed the organization of three global ministerial conferences in the last decade: the first was held in Moscow on 19 and 20 November 2009, in accordance with resolution 62/244; the second in Brasilia on 18 and 19 November 2015, in accordance with resolution 68/269; and the third in Stockholm on 19 and 20 February 2020, in accordance with resolution 72/271. The Assembly also supported global advocacy events, such as UN Road Safety Weeks as well as the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. In 2015, the United Nations Secretary-General appointed a Special Envoy for Road Safety to raise the level of political commitment on this issue. In resolution 74/299, the General Assembly decided to convene a high-level meeting in 2022 to mobilize political leadership for road safety.

A second role is to establish standards and norms, and develop technical guidance based on scientific evidence. Many United Nations entities contribute to such efforts, covering the broad spectrum of issues involved in the realization of sustainable road safety improvements. Guidance and normative tools relate to, among other things, road infrastructure, vehicles and vehicle parts, road user behaviour, the transport of dangerous goods, professional drivers and post-crash response.

A third role is to encourage governments to develop and implement policies supportive of road safety improvements. In this regard, the United Nations system, through its various entities, assists Member States in improving their governance and data systems, assessing their road safety situation, strengthening their legislation, and strengthening their capacity to develop and implement road safety plans.

A fourth role is to mobilize various actors from the private sector, academia and civil society to act efficiently for road safety. This role centres on calling on non-State actors to systematically integrate safety into their operating modes, for example, through their procurement practices and fleet operations. There are different avenues to facilitating dialogue between the United Nations and global road safety stakeholders. One of them has been the United Nations Road Safety Collaboration, an informal platform facilitated by the World Health Organization (WHO), which, in accordance with General Assembly resolution 58/289, coordinates road safety issues within the United Nations.

This role involves catalysing funding from different sources to support the implementation of a coordinated United Nations approach. The United Nations Road Safety Fund is a key element in this effort.

A fifth role is to encourage Member States to sustain action on road safety by examining and reporting periodically on their progress on the issue. This is done through the submission of periodic reports of the Secretary-General2 and a series of global status reports on road safety.3 Monitoring of the status of road safety in countries is particularly important in a context where systems keep evolving, e.g. due to changes in population, climate, income or technological innovations. To assess the impact of these changes, Member States should continuously assess their road safety status to ensure that their evolving systems stay safe or become safer.

Logo for the Decade of Action for Road Safety 2021–2030.© World Health Organization

Although many United Nations entities are involved in road safety, the United Nations system can do more to support countries in improving road safety by intensifying existing roles and integrating road safety into their programmes, where this has not already been done. The One United Nations initiative, which ensures the coordination of programmes and plans by various agencies, offers a viable mechanism for organizing support to Member States in road safety and other areas.

How safer roads can facilitate achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals

If road safety is achieved—and related SDG targets 3.64 and 11.25 are met—the potential benefits for people will extend beyond their personal safety. For example, a road system that is safe, efficient and fulfils the transportation needs of all people facilitates access to education (SDG targets 4.2 and 4.3), health care (target 3.8), and food (target 2.1) in an equitable way (target 9.1). Such a system also connects all parts of a country, contributing to building economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas (target 11.a).

Yet road safety cannot be achieved on its own without simultaneously addressing other issues covered in the 2030 Agenda. Countries that have reached a good level of safety have by necessity tackled many other matters of concern. For example, they have dealt with corruption (SDG target 16.5); participatory and inclusive decision-making (target 16.7); effectiveness, accountability and transparency of institutions (target 16.6); and funding aspects (target 17.1). The same applies with regard to sustainable cities (SDG 11), climate action (SDG 13) and gender issues (SDG 5), which should be considered in transport planning to ensure that sustainable and equitable solutions are identified. All of these elements contribute to efficient and sustainable road safety improvements.

While more examples can be provided, the key issue is that mobility is a basic function, and a big part of that occurs on roads. Safe roads contribute to the achievement of several social, economic and ecological goals indicated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As acknowledged in the 2030 Agenda, there are several pathways to achieving sustainable development.6 Therefore, it is necessary for each Member State to determine the most appropriate path for progress, ensuring that synergies are built among the several development and environmental agendas.

As we stand at the beginning of the Decade of Action for Road Safety 2021-2030, the goal of which is to reduce road deaths and injuries by at least 50 per cent by 2030, the expectation is that the United Nations system will sustain its work on road safety, thus contributing not only to reducing deaths and injuries on the roads but also to ensuring that safer roads are available in all parts of the world to support economic, ecological and social sustainability.


1 World Health Organization, Global Status Report on Road Safety 2018 (Geneva, 2018), p. 7. Available at https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241565684

2 The Secretary-General’s most recent report on improving road safety (A/74/304) is available at  https://undocs.org/en/A/74/304.

3 The most recent such report is the Global Status Report on Road Safety 2018 (Geneva, 2018). Available at https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241565684.

4 SDG 3, target 3.6 calls for a reduction by half of the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic crashes.

5SDG 11, target 11.2 calls for the provision of access to safe, affordable, accessible, and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.

6 A/RES/70/1, para. 59: “We recognize that there are different approaches, visions, models and tools available to each country, in accordance with its national circumstances and priorities, to achieve sustainable development.”