Roads are now the biggest killer of young people over the age of 10, with road traffic deaths constituting a global health epidemic that has reached crisis proportions, according to a report published on Wednesday. The Safe and Sustainable Roads report, launched by the Campaign for Global Road Safety, says road safety is one of the world’s greatest development challenges and predicts the number of people killed in traffic accidents will rise from 1.3 million to 2 million a year if no urgent action is taken.

Currently, 3,500 people die every day in traffic-related incidents and 50 million are injured every year on the world’s roads.

The report blames the high numbers of fatalities on transport policies that put vehicles, highways and speed before people and road safety. The vast majority of those who die are in developing countries, with 20 countries accounting for 70% of global road deaths.

Children and young people are the worst affected, with road traffic injuries now the single biggest source of fatality among 10 to 24-year-olds worldwide. In 2004, the last year for which comprehensive data is available, road traffic injuries killed more 5- to 14-year-olds than malaria, diarrhoea and HIV and AIDS.

If left unhindered, the report warns that spiralling road deaths and injuries will be a significant barrier to the world hitting education and poverty targets set out in the millennium development goals.

The Campaign for Global Road Safety is urging world leaders to take urgent action to integrate sustainable transport and road safety into the Rio+20 framework.

It warns there is no “hidden magic bullet” for tackling road safety but says that, unlike many other health epidemics, there are simple, affordable and tested interventions that are simply not being applied or enforced.

These include the enforcement of rules on crash helmets, seat belts and drink driving, and the strengthening of vehicle safety provisions.

“The epidemic of road traffic injury is a source of poverty, human suffering and economic waste on a global scale,” says Kevin Watkins, senior research fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the report. “Over the next two decades, the number of vehicles in the world’s poorest countries will increase at an unprecedented rate. Unlike some of the issues that will be discussed at the Rio+20 summit, there are few unknowns in road safety. It’s not rocket science, yet progress has been painfully slow.

“Bilateral donors and the World Bank have been talking for years about putting road safety at the centre of their infrastructure programmes – but the rhetoric has yet to deliver results.”

The report sets out recommendations that could help prevent road deaths, including stronger regulation to prevent car manufacturers conducting a “race to the bottom” in vehicle safety provisions for the poorest countries. It says an additional $200m is needed annually to support the development of national road safety strategies in countries worst hit by road traffic fatalities.

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