A new initiative is aimed at reducing car accidents, which kill more than 10 000 people in south-east Europe each year.
Two men wearing hard hats and high-visibility jackets stand on the side of a highway on a bright and chilly Monday morning. Equipped with asphalt-penetrating radars, a global positioning system and a camera bolted on to the roof of their yellow van, the pair has been working to create detailed images of more than 3 600km of Greece's most dangerous roads. As winter approaches, their journey finally nears its end.
The men are part of the South East Neighbourhood Safer Routes (Sensor) project, a two-year, €1.5-million initiative that is mapping more than 14 000km of roads across 14 countries, from Slovakia in the north to Greece in the south.
The project is not only ambitious in its geographical coverage, it is also the first of its type and scale in this part of Europe, crossing borders to create a network of safe highways throughout the region.
Motoring accidents in south-east Europe claim more than 10 000 lives every year and seriously injure
100 000 people. Road fatality rates in countries such as Albania, Bosnia and Greece are between three and four times higher than in the United Kingdom, according to the World Health Organisation.
Despite the high death rates, investment in preventive measures remains a low priority for most of the region's cash-starved governments.
'Not a sexy topic'
"This is not a sexy topic [and] it tends to be perceived as a costly area of investment. These are two of the main reasons it tends to be neglected," says Olivera Djordjevic, assistant project manager at Sensor.
"We are trying … to show governments how small investments in the right places can go a long way. Sometimes a simple measure, such as adding a road barrier or school crossing, can have a big impact in saving lives."
The process begins in Sensor's regional offices in Prague, Belgrade and Athens, where analysts use existing data sets to generate colour-coded risk maps of the region's highways, with ratings ranging from a safe green to a dangerous black. Routes determined to be highest risk are flagged for inspection.
Enter the vehicle inspection team. The two men on the side of the Greek highway are vital cogs in the Sensor machine. The team photographs the road at 10m intervals, covering about 200km each day. Attention to detail is crucial. The data must be checked and double-checked before being sent to specialist laboratories for processing.
"It's absolutely vital that the information is as accurate as possible," says Steve Lawson, research and partnerships director at the European branch of the Road Assessment Programme, which is supporting the Sensor project.
Safer road investment plans
Back at the labs the information-loaded images are used to create a virtual road, which experts analyse for more than 35 factors – including pedestrian volume, street lighting and lane width – that are known to increase the risk of crashes and fatalities.
The final data series is used to generate safer road investment plans, detailed documents that identify the most cost-effective ways for governments and development banks to invest in road improvements.
Projects like Sensor are vital across poorer countries, including southeast Europe, says Lawson, whose organisation has conducted similar work in several other regions.
"It is not just about making one-off investments," he adds. "We started this [mapping] project 12 years ago. Before that, there was no real way to compare networks and pinpoint the hazards."
Preventing accidents saves lives – and it can boost economic growth. According to Sensor, 2% of south-east Europe's annual gross domestic product is lost to road accidents.
"Economically, road safety is important, not just because of the social and medical care costs associated with accidents but because safer roads mean better trade routes for the region," says Djordjevic.
"In the end, this is about motivating governments to make a small investment for a big return. This project can potentially save thousands of lives." – © Guardian News & Media 2013