The war on road traffic accidents is being fought on many fronts: road safety education, research into technical improvements to infrastructures and vehicles, and the promotion of new prevention measures. In all of these, Fundación MAPFRE has been playing a leading role through the MAPFRE Institute for Road Safety, now Fundación MAPFRE, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
TEXT: ÁNGEL MARTOS IMAGES: FUNDACIÓN MAPFRE
It was the year in which Barcelona handed over the Olympic baton to the American city of Atlanta. The year in which the cloned sheep Dolly was born and in which Lady Di divorced Prince Charles. In that year, chess legend Garry Kasparov was defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer. It was 1996, and in Spain 5,635 people (4,276 men and 1,359 women) died in road traffic accidents. The figure, although terrifying, was a hopeful drop from the 1989 peak of 9,344 fatalities, to which must be added casualties (whether hospitalized or not). Together they painted a black picture of more than 170,000 people affected by accidents. At that time, if we spoke of a pandemic, our imaginations did not conjure a coronavirus, but rather a jalopy roaring down the road.
We had already spent our first decade in the European Union (formerly the European Community) and the enormous improvements in transport and road infrastructure (we started with 483 kilometers of motorways, but today there are more than 15,000) were working miracles with the help of new vehicles and the compulsory use of safety systems (seat belts, child seats, helmets, etc.). Spain was going to stop being the black sheep of Europe in terms of road accidents and was set to become a shining example for the world, as it is today.
This global success as a society was only possible thanks to collective heroes. And if political awareness was fundamental in the public sector, implemented through the Spanish Directorate General of Traffic (DGT), in the private sector it was MAPFRE that led the way with the creation, in 1996, of the MAPFRE Institute for Road Safety (now Fundación MAPFRE), 25 years ago.
This is how Miguel María Muñoz Medina, who was at the head of the DGT during those pivotal years (1988-96) and would also later chair the Institute (until the end of 2009), remembers it. “I always thought that the only sector whose business interests coincided with an improvement in road safety was the insurance industry. The sector as such did not take up the gauntlet that I repeatedly threw down to it and so, in the autumn of 1995, I contacted the then president of MAPFRE, Julio Castelo, to propose that a permanent road safety programme or structure be created within the Foundation”, writes Muñoz Medina in his article in the book Del infinito al cero. Así lo hicimos [From Infinity to Zero. This is how we did it], edited by Fundación MAPFRE and the DGT. “The idea was received very enthusiastically.”
An innovative recipe
The Institute was not born out of nothing. Throughout the 1980s, MAPFRE had been building a road safety research structure “in response to the significant developments achieved by motor insurance and with the desire to provide, both to its members and to society in general, other corporate services that went beyond the mere payment of claims and compensation”, writes Ignacio Larramendi, the fondly remembered president of the insurance company and creator of Fundación MAPFRE in 1975. In his book Así se hizo MAPFRE. Mi tiempo (2000) [This Is How MAPFRE Was Made. My Time], he gives an account of the creation of the first road safety and experimentation centers, which gradually achieved international recognition. It also shows how a layer of psychological and social research and road safety education was added to the more technical studies into accidents and infrastructures. For this reason, Larramendi highlighted studies such as one on nighttime signposting at roundabouts, and another on the influence of drugs and caffeine on driving. This innovative recipe would eventually emerge fully baked in 1996, in the form of the Institute, today Fundación MAPFRE.
“At that time, talking about road safety awareness was a minority issue”, recalls Antonio García Infanzón, a member of the Institute’s founding team. “It gave the impression that the figures from road accidents were taken for granted by society… MAPFRE’s commitment to prevention was undoubtedly a trigger for our creation and subsequent development.” In effect: reducing the number of road traffic incidents involving casualties, even as low as zero, has always been the ultimate goal. Antonio Huertas, president of Fundación MAPFRE, underlined this in his foreword to Del infinito al cero. Así lo hicimos [From Infinity to Zero. This is how we did it]: “We need to do more and do it even better in the coming years to achieve the goal of zero serious victims and fatalities in cities by 2030, and in rural areas by 2050, as proposed by Fundación MAPFRE in 2015.” The key lies in prevention, through actions that influence the three cornerstones of road safety: people, infrastructure and vehicles.
The Institute in figures
Over these 25 years, Fundación MAPFRE has invested around 125 million euros in road safety, a figure that reflects the significance of a commitment that, moreover, is not limited to Spain, but is being rolled out in 23 countries, mainly in Latin America, Brazil, Portugal, Turkey and Malta. As Ángela Sordo, head of International Road Safety Projects at Fundación MAPFRE, acknowledges, initially Spain exported knowledge and projects, but this is now a two-way street and “there are wonderful programs in some countries that add a great deal to our work.” The difficulty of this vast international endeavor lies in the different realities that exist in each society. “Alcohol consumption rates, speed limits, and the regulations for the use of child restraint systems are not the same in all countries, although I believe that they are gradually becoming more standardized”, says Sordo. And as an example, she talks about the recent #love30 campaign carried out in collaboration with the United Nations Road Safety Committee, “which aims to raise awareness of the fact that on a one-way street in a city we should never drive at more than 30 km/h.”
Collaborations with the UN, the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Commission and its Road Safety and Sustainable Mobility area, and the Spanish Congress of Deputies are now commonplace for Fundación MAPFRE’s Road Safety and Prevention Area, reflecting its international standing and the strength of its contact with this network of institutions. A large part of this prestige is based on its capacity to generate knowledge. 25 years ago, “it was very easy to promote analyses for any problem related to road safety, as the problem was enormous and the initiatives were few and far between”, recalls Antonio García Infanzón. Today, the field of study is still vast, but the horizon is clearer thanks to the 125 or so documents and research studies published by Fundación MAPFRE, including its own studies, manuals and guides, dossiers and translations, many of which have been produced in collaboration with the most respected organizations.
The only sector whose business interests coincide with improved in road safety is the insurance sector
“I would highlight our 2021 study on the safety of electric scooters, developed together with CESVIMAP”, says Jesús Monclús, head of the Road Safety and Prevention Area at Fundación MAPFRE since 2014, “because we are convinced that it has been key in the legislative change that is about to take place.” Other studies such as the one on the use of seat belts in coaches, “something that had never before been addressed in Spain and which came about after the 2016 tragedy in Tarragona”, have even been cited on several occasions by the European Commission itself in official working documents. Or the 2002 Road Safety Manual for Industrial Estates, which was totally innovative at the time.
Over the last 12 years, Fundación MAPFRE has educated approximately 3 million children around the world in road safety. In 2019 alone, before the coronavirus pandemic struck, thousands of educational activities were carried out for children and young people, as well as for professionals and adults in general. And this activity has not stopped even under the various lockdowns around the world imposed by the coronavirus emergency. Like the Educational Program in Peru “where, in the midst of the pandemic, road safety workshops have reached almost every home through television campaigns in collaboration with the country’s Ministry of Education”, explains Sordo.
Recognition for the cause
Que un proyecto colectivo de tanta relevancia conmemore su 25 aniversario ya parece suficiente regalo. Pero también es este el momento de sacar a pasear el palmarés y dar brillo a esas medallas justamente merecidas. Algunos de los reconocimientos más destacados recibidos por el Instituto en los últimos años son los premios de la Carta Europea de la Seguridad Vial, organizados por la Comisión Europea; también el premio de la organización internacional Safekids o el prestigioso Prince Michael Award. Y, por supuesto, las tres Medallas al Mérito de la Seguridad Vial que otorga el Gobierno, la primera de ellas conseguida por el Instituto MAPFRE de Seguridad Vial y las dos siguientes a dos de sus directores (Julio Laria y Jesús Monclús).
The fact that a collective project of such importance is commemorating its 25th anniversary seems like enough of a gift. But this is also the time to take stock of our achievements and show off those justly deserved medals. Some of the most outstanding awards received by the Institute in recent years are from the European Road Safety Charter Awards, organized by the European Commission; as well as the award from the international organization Safekids and the prestigious Prince Michael Award. And, of course, the three Medals of Merit for Road Safety awarded by the Spanish Government, the first of which was won by the MAPFRE Road Safety Institute and the following two by two of its directors (Julio Laria and Jesús Monclús).
We asked Monclús how many lives have been saved thanks to this key initiative. “I’m afraid I’m going to answer a bit vaguely, which is the correct way to answer complex questions”, he argues. “What we do know is that since 1989, when the number of fatalities in Spain peaked, traffic deaths in Spain have dropped by 80%, which equates to more than 150,000 lives having been saved thanks to improvements in road safety. And, as one of the key players in this period, and since its creation in 1996, the contribution of the MAPFRE Road Safety Institute to this “road miracle” is unquestionable. Although the pain remains for all the lives that could not be saved.” “Without exaggerating, we can say that we are part of road safety history in Spain, as well as in Latin America”, maintains Antonio Huertas in this regard. “We could almost say that Fundación MAPFRE is in itself ‘an important road safety measure’.”
In this sense, “Spain needs to revitalize its road safety policy in the coming years”, point out Monclús and Pere Navarro, head of the DGT, in their introduction to the book Del infinito al cero. Así lo hicimos, “to fight against what has been called the exhaustion (others see it as a lack of investment) of certain road safety measures. Or at least, to combat the accident figures, and the human pain these represent, which have not improved in recent years, unlike, for example, in the 2010s.”
Sustainable mobility, within the framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can contribute some of this impetus. The streets of our cities and the uses to which we put them are changing by leaps and bounds. From the increase in pedestrianization and the growing presence of new/old vehicles (bicycles and electric scooters) to the arrival of the electric car and its culmination with autonomous driving through artificial intelligence. But as Jesús Monclús recommends, “We must not allow ourselves to be dazzled by technology, and we must keep educating, raising awareness and promoting empathy among all types of road users and, increasingly, with Mother Earth.”
In another 25 years, by the year 2046, if not sooner, “we will have already achieved the goal of zero serious and fatal traffic accidents”, Monclús predicts, whether thanks to self-driving cars, new safety measures or the commitment of society as a whole. A vision that sounds attainable for Spain, but that across the planet, when the total number of road deaths still exceeds one million (1.35 million in 2019, according to the World Health Organization), seems more difficult to achieve. “They are not really “accidents” or “accidental” events, in the sense that they are not foreseeable or avoidable. Road traffic injuries are the result of known risk factors or, in some cases, outright recklessness, for which there are very effective preventive measures. We just need to deploy these throughout the entire network, in all vehicles, and to deliver road safety education, awareness and training to all road users throughout their lives.” Fundación MAPFRE will continue to be involved in this work.