“Life Is Sacred” — How Bogotá Reduced Road Deaths and Homicides Together

Bogotá reduced traffic deaths after reframing the issue in a way that appealed to widely accepted values. Photo: Felipe Restrepo Acosta/Wikimedia Commons
Bogotá reduced traffic deaths after reframing the issue in a way that appealed to widely accepted values. Photo: Felipe Restrepo Acosta/Wikimedia Commons

Worldwide, about 1.25 million people lose their lives in car crashes every year. But enacting policy to reduce the bloodshed remains a difficult political challenge around the world.

Traffic safety “lacks political salience” and “is often subordinated to other priorities,” according to a recent report from the World Resources Institute [PDF]. Measures to prevent traffic deaths, the organization reports, are often seen as being in conflict with other goals, like reducing congestion.

But WRI’s review of campaigns in Nairobi, Mumbai, and Bogotá points to a way forward: Tying road safety to other issues that have broad public support.

Among these three cities, Bogotá has made the most progress. The city’s traffic fatality rate declined by roughly 50 percent between 1996 and 2006. Key to that result was an initiative to address traffic deaths and homicides in tandem. Anna Bray Sharpin at the World Resources Institute reports:

The 1990s was a turbulent decade for Colombia, with record levels of violence and homicide. Citizens demanded a government response. In Bogotá, a suite of enforcement, social marketing and education policies were enacted, under the banner “Life is Sacred.” As part of this program, the administration linked traffic deaths to wider problems of crime and murder in the city, and framed it as a part of a public health crisis.

This approach galvanized public attention around “traffic violence.” Targeted social marketing and education programs encouraged people to expect safe and courteous behavior from their fellow citizens and promoted recognition of societal norms in public spaces, particularly traffic regulations. The resulting shift in perspective also generated increased support for changes to public transport and public space.

These programs had unexpected benefits for road safety. For example, one “Life is Sacred” policy set earlier closing times for night clubs to reduce alcohol-fueled violence. A welcome side effect was a reduction in drunk driving, which resulted in significant gains for road safety. It demonstrated that Bogotá’s actions to reduce violent crime could have an impact on traffic fatalities as well.

“Life is sacred.” It’s an ethic that we don’t live up to in North America either.

At Big Orange Bike, Charlotte Masemann, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, explains her exasperation at being treated as if she’s merely an annoying obstacle when she’s walking around her own neighborhood.

After being verbally abused by a male driver — he called her a “cunt” as she walked across a bridge — Masemann writes that car-centric streets have caused the social contract to fray:

If I can’t walk around my neighbourhood without the fear that my children or I will be abused, the state is not living up to its part of that contract. By creating a physical environment that favours the power of the person in a motorized vehicle over the person without one, the city is failing to honour the social contract. The state needs to address the implicit imbalance of power between the hegemonic car, which has the power of life and death, and the powerless pedestrian or cyclist, which does not.

Would framing traffic safety as part of a “larger socially resonant idea,” as the WRI recommends, save lives and prevent the type of harassment Masemann encountered?

  • TakeFive

    I really enjoyed this article.

    Sadly, in these divisive political and social times in this country I can’t be optimistic… but there was a time when this type of approach would have seemed more relevant.

    Maybe some day….

  • Alan

    I think they hit the nail on the head and I think it would work in many places. It may take a while to find the right issues to pair off in some places. I often wonder why health (obestity, diabetes, heart disease – etc all the lifestyle illnesses) and active transportation dont work more in tandem.

  • Vooch

    The triumph of the car centric worldview is so deeply embedded in the US, that I believe it will take monumental cultural effort to change.

    It will take a generation of persistent effort.

    A first step is educating people how dangerous driving is. If people really understood the extent of crashes in their neighborhood, they would be horrified. The attached map is a useful example.

    We also need to provide examples of alternative mobility. Americans hate driving, but see no alternative. If we had positive alternatives, we’d see suppprt for change.

    Something as simple as making it safe for children to walk to school might be a place to start cultural change. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0442e34582153e3bb30a0658a7a6cf32c895a6a985ed3c3e680cb30a5153519a.jpg

  • Jesse

    yeah that was my reaction too. We can’t even come to agree on issues that people talk about every day. This isn’t even a problem that most people recognize, let alone talk about. Just getting this idea into public consciousness, as even a precursor to the real political fight, is an enormous uphill battle. Barring some kind of energy crisis, I don’t think even my kids would live long enough to see any real progress on this issue.

  • eveka

    Not to mention the genius workings of Mockus and his work with mimes… I think they really helped set the standard for morality! https://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2013/oct/28/antanas-mockus-bogota-mayor

  • Stephen Simac

    I know it will take longer than a generation, because I was part of the 1970’s and 80’s generation of bicycle and pedestrian safety lobbyists and while there has been some progress in drivers’ attitudes, not much has changed in their behaviors. Engineers have evolved, at least in lip service, journalists not so much, while politicians are still all over the spectrum.

  • HayBro

    I don’t think most Americans know what a comfortable, enjoyable, well-functioning transportation system looks like. Send every American to Copenhagen, Amsterdam, or heck, even Vancouver, for a week so they can at least get a taste of something that isn’t purely car-oriented. I firmly believe this country’s lack of international travel stunts us into thinking a very limited, defeatist mindset. Not long ago, only 10% of Americans had passports. It was only when they became required for travel to Canada and Mexico did the number go up. Get out there and see the world, US! http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42586638

  • Marian Pyszko

    Size matters in Colombia… For example, a man crossing a street has let rights than a bicycle. A bicycle crossing a street has less rights than a car. A car has less rights than a pickup truck. A pickup truck has less rights than a semi truck…etc….

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