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Vulnerable Road Users

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Pedestrians | Bicycles | Motorized two-wheelers | Non-motorized traffic

Although all types of road user are at risk of being injured or killed in a road traffic crash, there are notable differences in fatality rates between different road user groups. In particular, the “vulnerable” road users such as pedestrians and two-wheeler users are at greater risk than vehicle occupants and usually bear the greatest burden of injury. This is especially true in low-income and middle-income countries, because of the greater variety and intensity of traffic mix and the lack of separation from other road users. Of particular concern is the mix between the slow-moving and vulnerable non-motorized road users, as well as motorcycles, and fast-moving, motorized vehicles.

There are clear regional and national differences in the distribution of road user mortality. Vulnerable road users – pedestrians and cyclists – tend to account for a much greater proportion of road traffic deaths in low-income and middle-income countries, than in high-income countries. In Delhi, India, for example more than 80% of the total number of fatalities is vulnerable road users of which pedestrians are the biggest group. In Thailand 70% of the road fatalities relates to motorcycles.

The type of traffic, the mix of different types of road user, and the type of crashes in low-income and middle-income countries differ significantly from those in high-income countries. Their traffic patterns have generally not been experienced by high-income countries in the past and so technologies and policies cannot be automatically transferred from high-income to low-income countries without adaptation. A good example of this provided by that of Viet Nam, where rapid motorization has occurred as a result of the proliferation of small and inexpensive motorcycles (95% of registered vehicles).

Children, elderly, and disabled people are particular vulnerable, as their physical and mental skills are either not fully developed or they are especially fragile. Children and older people are often overrepresented in traffic fatalities, especially as vulnerable road users.

Poor people in low income countries are believed to be particularly at risk from road crashes because they are more exposed. If injured, they often cannot pay additional and unexpected medical and funeral costs and the loss of a victim’s or carer’s income causes financial stress. In Bangladesh a study showed that among the Bangladesh poor, few of the victims were the head of the household, rather they were adult children who were the main income providers. Thus they were also more likely to have both elderly and young family dependants. In Bangalore in India the majority of poor households reported at least one person having to give up working/studying to care for the injured. Non-poor households were in many cases tipped into poverty as a result of a road injury of death.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in road traffic, risk is a function of four elements: exposure, the probability of a crash, the probability of injury and the outcome of the injury. Compared to other road users the vulnerable user group is particularly exposed to injury as they are not protected by a vehicle shell. In low and middle income countries the behaviour and mix of traffic and speeds creates even more dangerous conflicts amongst the different road users. Vehicle factors – such as braking, driving and maintenance as well as defects in road design and lack of traffic separation can also lead to an unsafe road environment for the users. In case of a road crash, if appropriate pre-hospital and emergency care are not provided, the result of injuries will be more severe and more lives will be lost.

This section of the GRSP Knowledge Base was developed with funding from the global Transport Knowledge Partnership (gTKP).


Young pedestrians in the middle of the roadPedestrians are the road users at greatest risk in most developing countries accounting for up to 75% of all road fatalities. While this can be partially explained by the low motorization levels in developing countries with walking trips likely to dominate travel patterns, traditional transport planning and road design have tended to focus on providing for motor vehicles and have largely overlooked pedestrians and their safety.

Low-income countries have also been found, in general, to have a higher percentage of child pedestrian deaths, largely explained by the population age distribution and increased exposure for that age group. According to WHO estimates for 2002, 15% of global road fatalities were children (0-14) of which 97% occurred in low-income and middle-income countries. Older pedestrians are also associated with a very high rate of road injury and death. This is mainly due to the increased physical frailty of the elderly. The United Nations estimates that between 6% and 10% of people in developing countries is disabled. Accurate data on disability is scarce, but it is obvious that the transport system in most developing countries is not friendly to pedestrians, let alone disabled people.

Behaviour of pedestrians is often not straightforward travel from one place to another. Reasons for walking can be divided into three categories: journeys to work or school etc., exercise or leisure. When people are walking, they usually choose the shortest route and do not want to spend any extra time on the trip. They obey the rules when they think it is sensible and necessary. Taking the shortest route can mean that they do not use underpasses or pedestrian crossings. They may not obey traffic lights, if waiting for the green light seems to take too long. Pedestrians on familiar routes tend to pay less attention to traffic than when walking in unknown surroundings. Children may play and can also suddenly rush into the street.

On their own, pedestrians are not a danger to themselves or others, but the conflict between motorized traffic and vulnerable road users that is potentially dangerous. Typical dangerous situations for pedestrians are drivers travelling at too high speeds, given the traffic circumstances, overtaking just before a pedestrian crossing, pedestrians not able to judge the speed when choosing a ‘gap’ in the traffic to cross the road in and lack of attention from both pedestrians and drivers.

Most countries provide some pedestrian facilities, but in most cases the road environment is not designed with pedestrians in mind. Bearing in mind that there are differences between urban and rural traffic mix and speed, there are a number of proven low cost measures to help pedestrians, which can be affordable on a wide scale and are easily implemented. A clear and wide pedestrian footway on urban roads and along rural highways is essential. Where pedestrian traffic is significant but insufficient to justify a footpath, hard shoulders should be sealed in order to provide a smooth compacted surface for pedestrians, as a comparable but preferable alternative to the paved roadway. As the majority of pedestrian injuries occur while crossing a road, the need for safe and efficient pedestrian crossing facilities could arguably be the most important pedestrian safety factor. Pedestrian refuges are a common pedestrian crossing feature in developed countries, yet they are rarely used in developing countries. Pedestrians should not have to cross more than two lanes of traffic at a time without a central median provided for refuge, allowing the pedestrians to cross the road in two stages. Zebra crossings (where pedestrians are supposed to be granted immediate priority over approaching vehicles) are provided in some developing countries, but in the vast majority of cases, can be quickly dismissed as a token measure with few, if any, actual benefits. Unlike zebra crossings, signalized pedestrian crossings offer the default priority to vehicle traffic with pedestrians allowed to cross only on signals. Unfortunately, like zebra crossings, they are not self-enforcing and rely on driver compliance with crossing regulations. In low flow, relatively low speed areas, raised pedestrian crossings have the potential benefits of reducing approach speeds, which reduce the likelihood of a road crash and the relative injury severity of it. Other safety measures are visibility of all the road users and the lighting of the streets.

The provision of vulnerable road user facilities does not guarantee effective usage and compliance by vulnerable road users and drivers. Education and publicity programmes are needed to improve understanding and awareness while enforcement can help motivate correct behaviour patterns by persuasion (verbal warnings) and punishment. Improving the provision of the usually poor emergency medical services can also result in a higher proportion of victims surviving on the road or on the way to a health clinic.

To maximize the impact through synergy, engineering measures should be coordinated with complementary education, enforcement campaigns and emergency services.


Bicycles in the middle of heavy trafic.There are some 800 million bicycles in the world, twice the number of cars. In Asia alone, bicycles carry more people than do all the world’s cars. Nonetheless, in many countries, bicycle injuries are not given proper recognition as part of the road safety problem and attract little research. In Beijing, China, about a third of all traffic deaths occur among bicyclists. In India, bicyclists represent between 12% and 21% of road user fatalities, the second-largest category after pedestrians. While some consideration has been given to pedestrians’ needs, especially as they cross roads and come into direct conflict with vehicle flows, bicycles, non-motorised vehicles and motorcycles are often left to manage in the general traffic stream alongside larger and faster motor vehicles.

Cyclists have a difficult position in traffic. They are sometimes supposed to follow rules for motorists, sometimes rules like those intended for pedestrians. Their needs are similar to those of pedestrians (shortest routes, smooth surfacing), but they are taken into account in traffic as a last resort. The situation does not encourage homogeneous patterns of behaviour. The younger cyclists are not yet able to cope with all the traffic signs and rules that apply to them. Young cyclists often like to play and show off, which leads to risk taking. There is also some amount of recklessness among adult cyclists, especially at signalised intersections, where they are often more inclined to act upon their own perception of traffic rather than wait for the red light and when performing turning movements. Elderly cyclists’ capability to cope with the traffic situation and concentrate on cycling decreases with age; cyclists tend to react more slowly. Just like pedestrians, they choose the shortest possible route to reach their destination, which sometimes leads them to use one-way streets in the wrong direction, or to cycle on the pavement, thus creating conflicts with pedestrians. The influence of alcohol can very much affect the ability to ride a bicycle safely.

There is a close relationship between vehicle speed and safety, that materialises in two ways: the probability of a road crash taking place increases with speed; and the outcome of the crash strongly depends on the collision speed. As the words “vulnerable road users” imply, cyclists and pedestrians are more likely to suffer from a collision/conflict than car drivers and passengers. Most reported severe and fatal accidents involving cyclists have been found to occur either at road junctions, or at crossings between a street and a cycle track. This is particularly the case in urban areas. Accidents appear to be more severe when the cyclist is hit by a turning vehicle - but falls, skidding accidents, and hitting obstacles like the kerb can also be harmful to the cyclists. Cyclists using pedestrian facilities can also prove dangerous, mostly to pedestrians. Drivers do not always follow the traffic rules either, or just simply fail to see the cyclists.

Conflict areas in the road environment need to be addressed in a realistic and pragmatic manner trying to ensure safe manoeuvring for the cyclists and without getting into conflicts with motorised road users. Various facilities can be provided along road links. These facilities can be categorized into segregated measures, either by physical (barriers) or visual (road markings) means, usually separating motorized and non- motorized traffic. Where non-motorised vehicles have been banned from using certain roads, it is important that an alternative network exist. Although cycle tracks have been found a good safety measure on road links, provided the width of the track is sufficient and care has been taken to prevent accidents with vehicles parking, safety problems may remain at intersections.

The potential for conflicts between non-motorized and motor vehicles is greatest at intersections, where segregation of traffic is not always possible or suitable. As a result, conflicts at junctions account for a large proportion of all cycle accidents. All intersections should preferably be marked and signposted in order to provide clear instructions and directions to motor vehicle drivers and non-motorised vehicles users alike. Different design/priority options/turning restrictions exist for priority junctions, roundabouts and signalised intersections to make them more safe.

The enforcement of traffic regulations governing all road users and vehicles is essential for the safety of cyclists. Regulations relating to motor vehicles that can increase road safety include the enforcement of speed restrictions and waiting restrictions in the vicinity of on-road cycle lanes. Similarly, cyclists have a responsibility to acknowledge and obey the various traffic laws, traffic signals, have lane discipline, and not encroach on to the footway. Behaviour and compliance can be further improved by education of the cyclist. Furthermore, it is important that cycles are as fit for the road as any motor vehicle. Hence equipment such as helmets, reflectors, headlights, and braking systems should be fitted and in good working order. There are some controversial issues related to bicycle helmet use, but in case of a fall or a crash a crash helmet will increase the chance of survival (from head injuries) by up to 40%.

Motorised two-wheelers

Motorcycles crossing a crowded road.In many low-income and middle-income countries, motorcycles and other types of powered two-wheelers are an increasingly common mean of transport, and the users make up a large proportion of those injured or killed on the roads. In some Asian countries they are the dominant vehicle and often carry whole families. Motorcycle riders are at an increased risk of being involved in a crash because they often share the traffic space with fast-moving cars, buses and trucks. They travel at high speed compared to other vulnerable road users, and they are less visible. In addition, their lack of physical protection makes riders particularly vulnerable to being injured if they are involved in a collision.

In low-income and middle-income countries the ownership and use of motorcycles and other two-wheelers are generally relatively high – for example, in India 69% of the total number of motor vehicles are motorized two-wheelers and 27% of road deaths are among users of motorized two-wheelers. This fatality figure is between 70–90% in Thailand, and about 60% in Malaysia. Injuries to the head and neck are the main cause of death, severe injury and disability among users of motorcycles and bicycles.

Due to their comparatively low cost, motorcycles tend to be the first affordable motor vehicles that can be purchased. Unfortunately, these riders have high-risk thresholds, limited education, training and testing, and, obviously, a lack of experience, all of which affects their behaviour and contribute towards making them high-risk road users. With the heavier machines and higher speeds, they may present a danger to others as well. There is a significant increase in risk associated with alcohol abuse and badly maintained condition of the road or the vehicle. Being seen and being perceived correctly and accurately by other road users are extremely important factors in powered two wheel related crashes. Most of this simply stems from the relatively narrow frontal silhouette of the rider, in comparison to that of other road users. Conspicuity for both rider and vehicles are of utmost importance. Suitable clothing, particularly motorcycle oriented clothing, can reduce the risk of sustaining abrasions, lacerations or “road rash” and will, in many instances, reduce the level of injury.

The safety of powered two wheelers is complex. Often problems stem from human error resulting in a conflict either by the rider or another driver or there is just not enough time for the rider/driver to avoid the collision whatever the level of skill. Sometimes the rider looses control performing a manoeuvre. Proper training in collision avoidance techniques can help reduce the frequency of loss of control. Other conflicts are due to a failure of the other vehicle driver to see and correctly perceive the powered two wheeler and the rider prior to the impact. Often these crashes are due to the other road users not entirely understanding how powered two wheelers and their riders operate and function in traffic.

Though human failure is the primary cause of the crash a large number of road crashes involving powered two wheelers are caused by shortcomings of the road environment. Urban crashes in general occur much more frequently than rural crashes. The presence of stationary objects which obstruct the view of the rider or driver and road maintenance (uneven surface with potholes, loose bitumen, gravel and low friction) defects are relatively common causes of powered two wheeler crashes. Bad weather and heavy rain also affect the riding a two wheeler. Obviously a good pre-hospital care and emergency system is important in case of a road crash to shorten the crucial time between the occurrence of the crash to the arrival of rescue teams or at a health clinic, thereby reducing the risk of fatal or serious injuries.

Motorcycle safety can be increased with the separation of two wheeled motorcycles from large, high-speed vehicles. This segregation can take one of two forms. Exclusive motorcycle lanes can be created, as in Malaysia. These lanes are separated from the main carriageway by a physical median; or joint motorcycle and small motorized vehicles lanes can be provided, as in Kuala Lumpur and Viet Nam. These joint lanes provide routes that pedal cyclists and other non-motorized vehicles can also use. Furthermore, motorized two wheelers will benefit from speed reduction measures where there is mixed traffic.

Enforcement of helmet wearing for both rider and pillion passengers will increase the likelihood of crash survival by up to 40 % depending on the speed of the motorcycle, and quality of the helmet. Helmet wearing is compulsory in many countries, but in many low and middle income countries not enforced. Regulations concerning the size and speed of motorised two wheelers should also be considered, along with the use of graduated licences based upon age and experience.

When training for obtaining the licence and in the test, road safety awareness issues are crucial, including wearing a helmet, passengers included.

Non-motorised traffic

Non-motorised vehicles such as cycle-rickshaws, animal carts, and handcarts have traditionally been an essential means of transporting people and goods in cities and towns in the early stages of economic development, particularly in Asia and Africa. In recent years, however, they have come under an increasing threat that has led to their almost complete disappearance in some major cities in Asia. In Penang, Malaysia cycle-rickshaws are declining in numbers, in contrast to the growth in the motorcycle fleet in the country. It is a similar picture in Surabaya, Indonesia. These trends reflect a gradual move away from rickshaws towards motorcycle based vehicles. This situation is compounded by many governments appearing to be actively discriminating against non-motorised vehicles with policies designed to discourage their use because of congestion and social issues.

Accident statistics, with respect to cycle-rickshaws, are scarce and unreliable (underreporting is a big problem), but R. Gallagher, in The Cycle-rickshaws of Bangladesh (1992), estimates that in 1986 and 1987, cycle-rickshaws accounted for about 10 percent of road deaths in Dhaka (based on newspaper reports). The lack of comprehensive accident data systems, coupled with the underreporting of many accidents, prevents detailed analysis from being carried out and thus the most suitable remedial measures cannot necessarily be implemented, be they engineering, enforcement, or education.

Non-motorised vehicles are usually moving faster than pedestrian and slower than motorised vehicles. Like for cyclists and motorcycles, non-motorised vehicles are left to manage in the general traffic stream alongside larger and faster motor vehicles. Usually they take up more space as they are wider, and they are a little more clumsy in their ability to manoeuvre, being mechanical or because of carrying huge loads. As for cyclists they sometimes behave like motorists, sometimes like pedestrians. There is not always a licence system for non-motorised traffic, still the riders must know traffic rules, how to behave and avoid conflicts in traffic with high speed vehicles and motor-cycles. Education might improve this. Conspicuity and being perceived accurately by other road users are extremely important factors for non-motorised vehicles.

The most serious conflict a non-motorised vehicle can experience is being hit by a fast moving vehicle, and the higher the speed the stronger impact and risk of injury. Most severe and fatal accidents happen either at road junctions, or at crossings between a street and a cycle track. This is particularly the case in urban areas. Many conflicts happen because the driver of the motor vehicle mis-read the situation, underestimate the speed, not following the traffic rules or in some cases, does not see the non-motorised vehicle.

Conflict areas between the different road users in the road environment need to be addressed as for bicyclist and motorcycles. Facilities along the roads segregating the high and low speed vehicles, either visually or by physical barriers can be helpful. Where non-motorised vehicles have been banned from using certain roads, it is important that an alternative network exist. The potential for conflicts between non-motorised and motor vehicles is greatest at intersections, where segregation of traffic is not always possible or suitable. All intersections should preferably be marked and signposted in order to provide clear instructions and directions to motor vehicle drivers and non-motorised vehicles users.

The enforcement of traffic regulations governing all road users and vehicles is essential also for the safety of non-motorised vehicles. Furthermore, it is important that non-motorised vehicles are well maintained and use lights and reflectors to be seen at night. As for all road users, a good pre-hospital care and emergency system is important in case of a road crash to shorten the crucial time between the occurrence of the crash to the arrival of rescue teams or at a health clinic, thereby reducing the risk of fatal or serious injuries.