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The road is a deadly place, but it doesn’t have to be

Traffic in Bangkok, Thailand. (Joan Campderrós-i-Canas/flickr)

Traveling by road can sometimes feel like a deadly proposition, whether it is in the back of a New York City cab, squished into a Nairobi matatu or the doorless tuk-tuk in Bangkok. The reality is that more than 1 million people, those living in low- and middle-income countries in particular, die each year on the road.

Road deaths are the leading killer among people between the ages of 15 and 29 globally. In total, about 1.25 million people die each year on roads. The number of deaths remains flat despite the continued growth of vehicles  – a good sign, but improvements are needed. It is an “unacceptable toll,” said Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization, in response to a report by the U.N. agency.

“We’re moving in the right direction. The report shows that road safety strategies are saving lives. But it also tells us that the pace of change is too slow,” Chan said in a release.

Roughly one-third of all road deaths occur in China and India. Other countries at the top include Brazil, Iran, the U.S. and Ethiopia. Overall, the number of deaths has remained constant since 2007. That is in the face of a global population growth of 4 percent, and a 16 percent increase in the number of vehicles on the road in just the past three years. While the numbers would suggest that things are improving, the fact is that the number of deaths is still very high, many of them are preventable and rates vary greatly among countries.

The rate of road fatalities is twice as high in low-income countries than it is in high-income ones. Progress is equally stratified. Most wealthy countries reduced road deaths between 2010 and 2013, while roughly half of middle-income countries did better and most low-income countries did worse.

(credit: WHO)

(Credit: WHO)

Taken together, the data show that it is possible to reduce road deaths significantly. The report calls on countries to enact and enforce stronger laws. It argues that making changes and following through is shown to significantly reduce road deaths. Recommendations include setting urban speed limits at 50 km/hr (~30 MPH) and setting drunk driving levels at 0.05 BAC.

“We are talking about some rather simple and basic things such as seat belts, such as front-impact regulations, such as electric stability control,” said Etienne Krug, director of WHO’s department for management of noncommunicable diseases, disability, violence and injury prevention, to Reuters. “The vast majority of cars being produced around the world are still not up to the best safety standards. Very often in many places the safety of vehicles is sacrificed in order to have improvements in prices.”

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a major supporter of the cause. His foundation helped fund the report as a part of its drive to reduce road deaths and support cities overall. Other leaders are joining the mayor. Some 17 countries have made legal changes that fall in line with the WHO recommendations outlined in the report.

“Every life lost in a road crash is an avoidable tragedy, and this report can prevent more of them by helping policymakers focus their efforts where they’ll make the biggest difference,” Bloomberg said.


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]