Road Deaths: the blight that will claim 2 million lives annually by 2030

Mikumi National Park
Mikumi National Park
Tom Murphy

(East Africa) Men gathered branches and leaves along the side of the road. A large truck traveling between the Tanzanian towns of Iringa and Morogoro was stuck in the mud.

Tire marks told of the sudden wheel’s turn taken by the driver to steer off the paved road and down into a field. The stretch through Mikumi National Park – home to elephants, giraffes, and zebras – is interrupted by speeding vehicles.  Police are scant and road safety rules, especially speed limits, are not well enforced.

Trucks pass other trucks while smaller, faster cars move between the behemoths.Vehicles will narrowly pass each other before avoiding oncoming traffic while traveling through the region’s bare hills.

Sometimes the passing driver makes the wrong decision. For this truck the outcome was quite good. He escaped from the road, truck intact. A road accident was avoided. The same cannot be said for the 1.3 million people who die due to traffic accidents each year.

Road deaths are climbing around the world, especially in developing countries. Projections by the World Health Organization (WHO) say 2 million people will die each year by 2030. The world’s rich countries will virtually eliminate road deaths thanks to safety measures and the burden will shift further to low and middle-income countries.

“The world is rapidly motorizing, and as this report shows, more concerted action is needed, and it is needed now,” said WHO Director General Margaret Chan at the release of the organization’s Global status report on road safety 2013 report.

“Without this, we can expect a rise in the number of deaths and injuries on our roads.”

What draws greater concerns is how the people affected are concentrated. Roughly 75% of road deaths are among men and it is the leading cause for death among people between the ages of 15 and 29 years old. The worst rate is in Africa where growing cities and more vehicles on the road pose new problems.

The motorcycle was a relatively rare sight in Western Kenya only five years ago. Some people managed to save up for one, but the main modes of transportation were bicycle taxi, public vans (matatus) and walking. Now, motorcycles have proliferated and the price for transport on one stayed constant. Given the better cost and quickness of transport, passengers ride on the back along bumpy dirt roads and no helmets.

Drivers will navigate between cars and move freely in the middle of the road at high speeds. The informal motorbike taxi trade requires little training and rules are hardly enforced on Kenya’s back roads.

When it rains, the motorcycle drivers stick out their feet to the sides for balance. They rev the engine to maintain forward momentum and prevent the swerving back tire from completely sliding out. At more precarious moments the drivers will walk the bike along by paddling booted feet in the mud.

Nearly one-quarter of traffic deaths involve motorcyclists. They pose a threat both to the driver and nearby pedestrians. There are laws in the books to eliminate hazardous driving, but they are not always enforced.

Shortly after exiting Mikumi National Park our car was stopped by a police officer. He cited our driver for speeding, despite not having a radar gun to determine the actual speed of the car, and levied a fine on the spot. The same thing happened the following week in Kenya. The driver was told to pay the high fine or the car would be immediately compounded.

Extortion under the guise of police work serves less as a deterrent to unsafe driving than to driving on certain roads. Road deaths and injuries cost come at a significant cost for middle- and low-income countries. The  International Road Assessment Programme estimates that some $1.9 trillion a year globally is lost due to the deaths, injuries and damage caused by road accidents.

Oxfam’s Duncan Green and the Guardian have been beating the drum on intentional road deaths for quite some time. The WHO, with the help of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are also trying to draw attention to a problem that will outstrip some of the world’s most deadly diseases.

“I am a strong believer in the power of numbers and those numbers are unacceptable, because these tragedies are preventable,” said Bloomberg.

Update: The Pulitzer Center shared this handy map they made that depicts road deaths by country.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.