Highway infrastructure and safety

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By Rubén López Barrera, CEO of Aleatica in Mexico 

Mexico City, August 2021 – Quality highway infrastructure is a key factor for people’s safety. The correct design and operation of transport links has a positive impact on the wellbeing of society. The work done by civil engineers in this field is fundamental for society.

Improving Highway Safety standards across all aspects is a challenge that affects the wellbeing of society. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that, although low-and medium-income countries only have approximately 60% of the vehicles in the world, they produce 93% of traffic-related deaths. Expanding and improving national transport networks requires a significant investment, but it provides benefits that extend far beyond simply economic returns.

The link between the quality of a highway and its safety is clear. The WHO indicates that 88% of pedestrians, 86% of cyclists and 67% of motorcyclists travel on roads with a rating of only one or two stars based on the international guidelines. Over half of the deaths occur among these users, who are most vulnerable to this risk.

Transport links need to be designed considering user needs at all times. In an urban context, it is important to include pedestrian areas, bicycle lanes, safe crossing points, as well as various speed-reduction measures.

When thinking about vehicle safety, it is important to consider that, at the global level, 44% of the vehicles on the road are very low quality. Construction of a sufficient number of high-performing highways is a task that is still incomplete. Experience acquired in developed countries confirms that, contrary to what people may think, high-performance highways with several lanes are statistically safer than alternate routes on local roads.

At the macro level, improvement begins with the planning of the highway network. One basic recommendation is to separate freight traffic flow from local transport. Ring roads and bypasses, for example, not only facilitate mobility and commerce, but also protect all users.

The next step is for each highway to incorporate and comply with the highest standards of design and construction. According to the International Road Assessment Program (IRAP), when it comes to vehicle management, the characteristics that a five-star road must have are barriers separating the two directions, anti-risk protection on the sides, and follow a route that, whenever possible, favors the use of straight lines.

It is important to carry out the maintenance required to comply with the Highway Safety standards throughout the entire useful life of the asset. Deficiencies in the pavement may cause accidents. This also occurs when the signage is insufficient or confusing, including the marking out of the lanes. When accidents occur, the speed and quality of the assistance provided to the people involved is often a decisive factor.

One example of a high-standard highway development is Circuito Exterior Mexiquense, which connects the various main highways of the Valle de México metropolitan area, which go to Querétaro, Puebla and Hidalgo, mitigating the influx of vehicles to the city for the more than 288,000 crossings made each day through the center of the country. The project meets the construction characteristics described above, and also has a detailed signage system and an intelligent transportation system (ITS), for safe and efficient management of the highway from a control center. Roadway assistance is offered 24 hours a day, with a response time that complies with international standards in the case of accidents or breakdowns, in coordination with the state and federal authorities, when applicable.

The development, operation and maintenance of transport links in line with international best practices is a priority task and an ongoing effort. The players involved—State and Private Operators—must assume this responsibility together with a view to the long term.

Together with the Highway Infrastructure variables involved, progress in other areas is required to achieve Highway Safety. Acknowledging that there are multiple factors at play does not in any way minimize the responsibility of each player involved. In fact, each player needs to do their utmost to implement a collective response, contributing their knowledge and insights.

Vehicles have increasingly more protection features. Some are derived from standards, like front and lateral impact protection, and other are developed as a result of technological advances, such as stability control systems, autonomous emergency braking, and lane-keep assist. Some have become global standards, while others are only available in more developed markets.

The last factors are those that derive from human error. The WHO reports that a) an increase of 1% in speed increases the risk of a serious accident by 3%; b) not wearing a seatbelt nearly doubles the risk of death for passengers in the front seat; c) using a cell phone while driving quadruples the risk of a crash; and d) driving under the influence of alcohol is the cause of a large number of lethal accidents, with a marked difference in this figure depending on the type of country:  around 20% in developed countries and up to 69% in some medium- and low-income countries.

Transit rules, including speed limits and breathalyzers, also play a key role. It is important that these measures not merely exist, but that society be widely aware that they have been implemented. Adopting rules and not enforcing them may have an opposite effect from the desired outcome, making people think that it is not a matter of true importance.

All of this leads me to stress the value of developing educational programs, creating civil associations and promoting national and international forums for collective reflection on Highway Safety, a topic that affects society as a whole. We need to gather information, share best practices and assess different alternatives for improving the local conditions. The goal established by the United Nations (Sustainable Development goal 3.6) is to reduce deaths and injuries caused by traffic accidents by half. We can even go beyond this and pursue a goal of zero deaths.