In Europe over 41,000 people die and 1.6 million are injured in traffic accidents every year. However, there are striking regional differences. In Southern Europe the number of traffic deaths is as much as two to three times higher for the same number of vehicles. The project SAFEAST, Towards Safer Road Traffic in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, was set up to examine the reasons behind these differences in October 2004. Universities from Sweden, the United Kingdom, Finland, and Greece participated in the four-year project.
© Fotolia, 2013
SAFEAST was a "Transfer of Knowledge Project," which was part of the Marie Curie programme with funding from the European Commission of approximately €680,000, whose aim was to improve the knowledge and research skills and mobility of Eastern Mediterranean traffic researchers. Experienced researchers were trained in Turkey and Greece and selected researchers from the two countries were sent to leading road safety institutes in the European Union (EU), exposing them to different systems and new ideas. Traffic experts from abroad also came to Turkey and Greece to share their knowledge. The research focused on how Turkish and Greek people behave in traffic, what factors influence their behaviour, and how it could be changed for the better.
As the coordinator of the project, Timo Juhani Lajunen, a psychologist at the Orta Dogu Technical University in Ankara explains, "If you look at Finland, traffic drivers are aware, they are educated in road safety". But in Turkey one is confronted with an additional problem: "We have to make people aware of how they can drive more safely, for example by wearing seatbelts or by having children sit on the back seat.
An important result of the programme supported by Marie Curie Actions (MCAs) was that it created a new research area, traffic psychology, in Turkey and a Masters program at Lajunen's university. "We now have a laboratory, we are working with research groups, and we've acquired expertise," says Lajunen. "Students here are extremely motivated, something I haven't seen in the rest of Europe" continues Lajunen, adding that some Turkish students completed PhDs, something they wouldn't have done otherwise. "They really find this fascinating and see the possibilities for changing things. In northern countries concerns about traffic safety are less urgent and the students don't get very motivated," says Lajunen.
A second aim of the project was to increase awareness of road safety among the general public and road engineers. By organising community projects, involving experts from different fields, including the traffic police, and actually going out onto the streets, researchers were able to raise public awareness and really change behaviour. "For example, with the help of the municipality, we went to different schools in Ankara and did traffic safety interventions, which means we went there with video recorders and monitored the speed of cars and the behaviour of children outside the schools," explains Lajunen. "And afterwards we went back and checked and, indeed, speed had decreased and the way of crossing the road had changed, making these places much safer."
Traffic police and municipalities in Turkey responded positively to the findings of this international research programme, and the field of traffic and transportation psychology received a boost. "We published many papers in the area, and people who took part in our project continued to work in traffic safety when returning to their universities," says Lajunen. Awareness of road safety is what changes drivers' behaviour and SAFEAST has made the first steps, concludes Lajune.