How a ‘five-star’ system is helping Pakistan fix dangerous roads

In 1959, a Volvo engineer invented the ubiquitous three-point seatbelt that keeps us safe on the roads everyday. The carmaker boldly made the patent available to all, even their competitors, speeding up mass adoption and undoubtedly saving millions of lives.

When it comes to road safety, innovations like these are just one piece of the picture. Today, with rapid urbanisation in the Asia Pacific — typified by congested cities heaving with vehicles — policymakers are grappling with the challenge of cutting deaths due to road accidents.

Besides the senseless and preventable loss of lives, road deaths take a huge toll on economies. For instance, the International Road Assessment Programme (iRAP) estimates that road fatalities are costing Pakistan US$2.3bn annually.

“This is a very alarming situation, and this was where we started developing the Pakistan road assessment programme,” said Asif Azam, Deputy Director of road management at the National Highway Authority (NHA) of Pakistan. He was speaking at a recent knowledge sharing webinar by ADB Transport, alongside Greg Smith, strategic projects lead of iRAP.

The intent was to “streamline the investment or implementation of life-saving countermeasures”, Azam continued. Working with iRAP, which provides a globally-recognised road safety assessment tool, the highway authority began with risk assessments of the vast network of roads and highways criss-crossing Pakistan.

Smith and the iRAP team collected data by taking videos of roads and recording over 50 road attributes that can contribute to higher risk of death and injury. These include “speeds on the road, the number of traffic lanes, whether there are line markings, sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, curvature,” according to him.

All these data go into ViDA, a system that calculates star ratings for roads based on their risk factors, with one star being the highest risk and five stars being the lowest. “Basically, we want designs to achieve at least a three-star rating,” said Smith.

With the ViDA system, the data can be visualised with multiple layers and filters. Let’s say we want to assess a road’s run-off risk: the system analyses data on its speed limit, curves, road shoulders, and other factors. “We can actually see that there are 362 high risk locations that come up as a result of that filter across the 10,000 kilometres of network,” Smith pointed out.

Now, Pakistan’s highway authority can make informed decisions on how to improve the star rating and subsequently the safety of roads. Smith continued, “Should you install pedestrian crossings, for example, improve the line markings, or improve the paved shoulder?” iRAP gave them an economic analysis of various options based on their budget, and advice on “the best investment to improve safety”.

The next steps for the authority are to “include road safety right from the planning stage” and “develop short-, mid- and long-term plans to achieve the target of three-star or better roads by 2030”, according to NHA’s Azam. Moving forward, the focus is also on making data collection a priority “for sustainability of the system”; and ensuring that training is a “regular feature” for NHA staff and other engineers, he concluded.

Road safety is an ongoing effort globally, and is just as much about the built environment as it is about changing behaviour. Pakistan’s example shows how data analyses and star ratings can lead to safer roads for its people.

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Asian Development Bank - Transport

Supporting the development of low-carbon, safe, accessible and affordable transport systems for Asia and the Pacific. Follow for #sustainabletransport insights