By Elizabeth Payne

In late February 2020, when some of the world was already in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the West was on the brink of moving into lockdown, I travelled to Stockholm to immerse myself in a different kind of epidemic — the scourge of traffic deaths and injuries.

The third Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety, which was held in Stockholm, now seems like one of the last experiences of normalcy before the pandemic began to change everything.

Sweden, at the time, had no cases of COVID-19 and the pandemic seemed a world away from the focus on trying to get people to pay more attention to traffic safety and to focus on improving the grim statistics.

I attended as a road safety fellow, part of a program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists and the World Health Organization. I was among journalists who were road safety fellows from around the world — including parts of the world where traffic deaths and injuries are of truly epidemic proportions.

Like many of my fellow journalists, I had attended a World Health Organization safety conference in the past, in Thailand in my case, and was struck by both the numbers of annual traffic deaths — 1.35 million or 3,700 people a day — and the fact that most of them are preventable.

More than anything, I was struck by the difficulty officials have getting people, in much of the world, to pay attention to the issue. That is one of the reasons for the journalism program, to help get word out about the extent of the issue and to look at solutions that are working around the world.

Sweden is, of course, key to those solutions. The home of Vision Zero, which has since been adopted and expanded around the world, Sweden has made road safety a national priority for decades. The results are impressive. Sweden has one of the lowest rates of traffic deaths in the world. Other countries that have made road safety and safe streets a priority — with policies to lower traffic speeds and build safe infrastructure — also have low traffic fatality rates. Sweden is not yet at zero, but Oslo, Norway recorded zero pedestrian and cycling deaths in 2019 and just one traffic death.

Canada, which was among the first countries to develop a road safety strategy, has plateaued in recent years when it comes to reducing traffic deaths. According to recent data, close to 1,900 people die every year in Canada in traffic crashes. Critics say Canada, once a leader, has taken its eye off the ball when it comes to reducing traffic danger and some officials simply accept a certain number of traffic deaths as inevitable. Most of them are preventable.

In Stockholm, journalists attended sessions looking at new technologies to improve traffic safety and heard about the importance of making road safety a priority around the world.

Dr. Etienne Krug, director of social determinants of health with the World Health Organization, said the key to change around the world is political will.

“We have invented the leading cause of death for our children and young people. Why have we accepted for so long a transport system that is killing so many people?” he asked.

I have heard the pleas before, something that Krug and others in Canada and elsewhere have been saying for years.

But, this time, in Stockholm, something was different.

Instead of simply a list of grim statistics and stories about the impact of the epidemic of traffic deaths and injuries, there was a powerful visual display of the toll of traffic deaths.

In Stockholm’s central station, a pile of shoes — 3,700, one for every person who would die in traffic that day — offered a gut-punch about the reality of lack of action on traffic safety.

During the conference, the pile of shoes — running shoes, sandals, dress shoes, boots — stayed in the station as a physical reminder of the lives lost and forever changed.

Bright Oywaya is one of thousands whose lives are changed in crashes.

Now a representative of the Association for Safe International Road Travel of Kenya, Oywaya is in a wheelchair as a result of a road crash.

“I am not a statistic, I was involved in a road crash that totally changed my life and I continue to bear the consequences,” she said before adding a pair of sparkly pink high-top running shoes to the pile.

The message was powerful. At the end of the conference, countries from around the world — including Canada — committed to continuing to improve traffic safety.

But, the message quickly faded amid the focus on COVID-19.

During the early months of the pandemic, reduced traffic meant fewer road injuries — although more speeding on less crowded highways was widely reported.

But as traffic returns to the roads post-pandemic, people such as Oywaya and that shocking pile of shoes should not be forgotten.

Elizabeth Payne is a journalist with the Ottawa Citizen. She attended the conference as part of an International Centre for Journalism safety fellowship.