Former NATO chief George Robertson and movie actress Michelle Yeoh urged world leaders Wednesday to treat traffic accidents as though they were a killer disease.
Road crashes kill on the scale of malaria or tuberculosis, claiming an average of 1.3 million lives per year globally _ a figure safety advocates warned would rise to 2 million by 2020 if their recommendations are not met.
"While we have succeeded in raising the political profile of road safety, we have not yet translated that into results," Robertson, head of the Make Roads Safe global campaign, said at a Moscow conference.
The advocates are pushing the United Nations to label the next 10 years a U.N. decade of action on road safety with a commitment to cut the forecast level of fatalities by 50 percent _ saving a potential 5 million lives.
Robertson and Yeoh _ the campaign's ambassador _ said on the eve of a first-ever meeting of transport ministers from several countries that governments allocate only a fraction of what they spend combatting disease on road safety.
Their message was that official inattention toward road accidents should be eradicated, that the private sector should commit funds to fight them, that developing countries should do far more to acknowledge the problem, and that making roads safe won't break the bank.
Yeoh _ who starred in the James Bond movie "Tomorrow Never Dies" and in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" _ called the summit long overdue.
"We have to make the case in cold, hard economic terms that there are inexpensive steps that can be taken to save thousands of lives," Yeoh said.
Kevin Watkins, senior fellow at the Centre for Global Economic Governance at Oxford University, lamented that "if this were a disease it would be at the top of the international agenda."
"Most finance ministers go to bed at night without reflecting properly on the cost to their economies" of road accidents, he said, adding that the associated costs in many countries are equivalent to up to 4 percent of gross domestic product.
On top of saving lives, road safety is an investment that can repay five to ten times over because of the reduction in health care costs, said John Dawson, chairman of the International Road Assessment Program.
"We don't need serious money to make roads safe," said Dawson, adding 3.5 million kilometers (2.17 million miles) of the world's roads are considered dangerous.
President Dmitry Medvedev is expected to open Thursday's ministerial meeting, which U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is set to attend.