Early one morning, as I walked the streets of La Paz, Bolivia, last week, I was pleasantly surprised when I ran into a pack of zebras crossing the street right in front of me. Zebras in Bolivia, you say? Well, not quite. As in turns out, what are known as Las Cebras de La Paz (“The Zebras of Peace”, a play on words that can also mean “The Zebras of La Paz”) is the city’s initiative to raise public awareness on road safety. The aim is to change both driver and pedestrian behavior and encouraging both groups to obey traffic signs. (Pedestrian crossings in Bolivia are known as “pasos de cebra” (zebra crossings), hence the name “Las Cebras”).
The initiative was launched in 2001, when 24 young people dressed in zebra costumes went out to the streets to inform the public about the city’s new Plan for Traffic, Transportation and Roadways. There are now well over 250 zebras and the initiative keeps growing as it attracts more young people to take part in this educational program.
Anyone that has visited La Paz will agree that traffic signs and rules are hardly respected, especially now that the black market has brought in stolen vehicles from outside sold at very cheap prices to Bolivians. Auto pedestrians accidents are not uncommon, so much so that travel sites feel the need to alert potential visitors of this “danger.” According to a 2013 World Health Organization report on road safety, Bolivia experiences 12 deaths per 100,000 population, and 36% of traffic-related deaths involve pedestrians. In a scale of 1 to 10, the effectiveness of speed and law enforcement has been given a 2.
This, of course, is not unique to La Paz or Bolivia, and it is a global health issue that has not received sufficient public attention. According to the WHO, approximately 1.24 million people died in road accidents globally in 2010, and this statistic does not take into account temporary and permanent disabilities that result from such accidents. While data on injuries sustained in road accidents are poor, the WHO estimates that for every road trafﬁc fatality, at least 20 people sustain non-fatal injuries. The report points out that ensuring pedestrian safety is one of the keys to reducing these numbers.
WHO may not have considered zebras as a possible solution to the problem, but what we are seeing in La Paz is a phenomenon that is taking “road traffic culture” a step forward in the right direction. To the government of La Paz, the zebra was a perfect way of raising awareness about road safety in a city where traffic signs for both motorized vehicles and pedestrians might as well be invisible. The zebras never act aggressively or issue traffic tickets. On the contrary, they are to represent the “friendly face” of the city and “bring empathy” to road users. In fact, since the zebras first started to roam the streets of La Paz, they have been winning people’s hearts as they direct vehicles (while jumping and dancing) to stop for pedestrians, especially children, crossing the car-packed streets, or simply greet people. Without a doubt, the people in La Paz have welcomed them. They not only like the zebras roaming the city streets, but even feel proud of them. Youtube is filled with videos catching the zebras in action as they go about their day directing traffic. People stop to take pictures with them—much like one would with Mickey Mouse. They just simply bring a smile to people’s faces. My father specifically recalls seeing a zebra “stop in her tracks” to feed her child with a bottle of milk—indeed, a very endearing moment.
The initiative also includes a campaign called “Cebra Por Un Día” (Zebra for a Day), where other people (even people visiting the country) can temporarily engage in the activities of teaching people to respect one another on the roads. It is intended to motivate people to become better citizens. Luis Rico, a renowned Bolivia composer and musician, participated and expressed gratitude for allowing him to be part of such an important cultural initiative. Even Bolivian pharmaceutical executives and representatives from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia who had come for a climate change conference have dressed as zebras for a day.
Also, in 2006, a new character was introduced: the donkey. It is the zebra’s cousin whose whole purpose is to mock bad behavior and teach the road user how to correct it. While it initially also roamed the streets, it now only appears in fairs, schools, and public events. During my time in La Paz last week, I recall seeing an ad along one of the main avenues depicting the donkey drinking and driving.
And this is not the only public health-related concern that the zebras are tackling. Interestingly enough, they are engaging in other health-related campaigns. Now that winter has arrived in Bolivia, these road safety zebras will be educating and reminding the public of ways to prevent respiratory illnesses.
Finally ,noting the success of the initiative, the zebras have launched the project “Cebras Sin Fronteras” (Zebras Without Borders), taking the idea abroad to other Latin American countries like Mexico, Peru, Argentina, and Colombia.
Who needs traffic police when you have friendly zebras working for road safety? See them in action! (Video)
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.