Corporate social responsibility often resembles the adventures of The Good Soldier Svejk. In 1914, about to be conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army, Svejk puts on his old uniform and a volunteer's buttonhole and, waving his borrowed crutches and shouting "To Belgrade, to Belgrade!", has his landlady push him to the recruiting office in a bath chair. Jaroslav Hasek's marvellous creation is lauded by the newspapers for his extraordinary patriotism.
By this means Svejk attempts to persuade the authorities that he is doing everything he can to get to the front, even if, to his enormous regret, his rheumatism prevents him from having his brains blown out. By noisily volunteering to subject themselves to stricter standards, the corporations try to pre-empt the rules which might otherwise have been imposed on them. This, they hope, will allow them to participate only when and how they see fit.
In Svejk's case it didn't work. His patriotism was rewarded with enemas and emetics until his rheumatism was miraculously cured. The corporations, on the other hand, always seem to persuade the authorities of their undying commitment to the causes they espouse, which ensures that they can enter the war on their own terms. This seems to be the way that the global campaign for road safety is going.
Death and injury on the roads is the world's most neglected public health issue. Almost as many people die in road accidents - 1.2 million a year - as are killed by malaria or tuberculosis. Around 50 million are injured. Some 85% of these accidents take place in developing countries. The poor get hurt much more often than the rich, as they walk or cycle or travel in overloaded buses. The highest death rate is among children walking on the roads.
The annual economic cost to developing countries, in lost productivity alone, is $65-$100bn, roughly the same as the amount they receive in foreign aid. I caught a glimpse of the human cost when I was hospitalised in northern Kenya. Some of the men on the ward had bullet or axe wounds inflicted in tribal wars, others were dying of HIV/Aids, but over half had been smashed up in road accidents. They could not afford good painkillers, and sobbed and screamed through the night. It looked like a scene from the first world war.
The problem is likely to become much worse. By 2020, according to the World Bank, deaths from road accidents are expected to fall by 28% in rich nations but to rise by 83% in poorer ones. By 2030, they will overtake the deaths caused by malaria. But while $1.9bn of foreign aid will be spent on tackling malaria over the next five years, the annual global aid budget for road safety is less than $10m. This issue has been neglected partly because it is something the rich inflict on the poor, and partly because it is widely perceived as an unavoidable price of doing business - as the global transportation industry expands, so must its human costs. Governments are just beginning to wake up to the problem. But the corporations got there first.
In 1999, at the invitation of the World Bank, the motor and oil companies joined something called the Global Road Safety Partnership. It was supposed to bring together "governments and governmental agencies, the private sector and civil society organisations". But its executive committee contains no one from a civil society organisation and only two representatives of government. BP, Total, DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, Michelin and Volvo, however, are all represented.
Professor Ian Roberts at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine compared the prevalence of certain words in the partnership's annual reports to their prevalence in a similar report written by the World Health Organisation. In the partnership's reports, he found a pattern of systematic neglect of pedestrians and cyclists. In the WHO's report, "speed limit" occurred 17 times in every 10,000 words; in the partnership's reports, just once. "Pedestrian" was used 69 times by the WHO, and 15 times by the partnership; "buses" and "cyclists" were mentioned 13 and 32 times respectively by the WHO, and not once by the partnership. "Reclaiming the streets for walking and cycling," he notes, "will not serve the interests of the car makers."
Instead, the Global Road Safety Partnership emphasised better training for drivers and better safety education for children. These measures do not interfere with the commercial interests of the transport industry. Neither, according to peer-reviewed papers Prof Roberts cites, do they work.
The motor industry also appears to dominate the most prominent international body on road safety. Three weeks ago, the racing driver Michael Schumacher wrote a column - quite a good one - for these pages to mark Global Road Safety Week. He described himself as a member of the "independent Commission for Global Road Safety". The commission launched the Make Roads Safe campaign, which is modelled on Make Poverty History. But how "independent" is it?
It was established by the FÃƒ©dÃƒ©ration Internationale de l'Automobile Foundation, which is run by motoring and motorsports associations. Of the eight commissioners, one is an executive of General Motors, one runs the Bridgestone Tyre Corporation, one is a trustee of the FIA Foundation, one is chairman of the FIA Foundation and a president of the Automobile Club of Italy and one is Michael Schumacher. The commission's secretary is the director general of the FIA Foundation.
Its report is better than the material published by the Global Road Safety Partnership. There is more emphasis on speed limits, road design and traffic management. But there are some odd gaps and contradictions. It complains that "participation by middle- and low-income countries in the existing international road safety organisations ... is low" and that there is a "lack of ownership" of road safety programmes by the governments and people of developing countries. So why do all its own members come from the G8 nations? The commission prescribes an "action plan" for global road safety, to be run by something called the Global Road Safety Facility. This - surprise, surprise - also turns out to have been launched and partly funded by the FIA Foundation.
Most importantly, it calls for the developing nations to follow the path taken by richer countries in reducing deaths and injuries. But at no point does it mention that much of this reduction was the result of cyclists and pedestrians being driven off the roads. This is a much bigger issue for poor nations - where the great majority of people who use roads do not own cars - than for rich ones. Is this the vision:that the space now used by pedestrians and cyclists and ox carts and rickshaws is surrendered to car drivers? If so, it might reduce fatalities, but it would also represent a classic act of enclosure, through which the rich are able to secure the resources of the poor.
Michael Schumacher is in danger of finding himself in the same position as Bob Geldof - a celebrity who claims to speak for the poor and weak but who is informed and guided by the powerful. We need a global campaign on road safety, but it must belong to the people on whose behalf it acts.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007