At the beginning of April, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimated that traffic fatalities in the United States declined to the lowest rate (per vehicle miles traveled) since 1949. While it’s somewhat disturbing that the loss of 32,788 lives can be reported as good news, cars are indeed getting safer in the developed world.
A number of factors, including increases in the prevalence of air bags, drunk driving enforcement, and seat belt usage, help explain this downward trend.
Unfortunately, traffic fatalities are skyrocketing in lower income countries (see this figure). An article from the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies lists four factors contributing to such high injury and fatality rates in lower income countries:
- The growing number of cars – In Tanzania, car buyers can order used vehicles from Japan online from sites like Autorec; the purchased vehicle will arrive at the Dar es Salaam Harbor a few months later. Strict emissions and safety standards in Japan create disincentives to driving older vehicles, so there is an abundant supply of affordable used vehicles that can be shipped around the world.
- The high number of passengers per vehicle, especially in buses and minibuses
- Poor enforcement of safety regulations – Widespread corruption means that it is cheaper for drivers and owners to pay a bribe for traffic or maintenance violations than to obey the law.
- Inadequate health care systems.
The authors of this article go on to explain how socioeconomic status influences the breakdown of traffic injuries:
The choice of mode of transport in developing countries is often influenced by socioeconomic factors, especially income. In Kenya, for example, 27% of commuters who have no formal education were found to travel on foot, 55% usually used buses or minibuses, and 9% used private cars. By contrast, 81% of people with secondary level education or above usually travelled in private cars; 19% travelled by bus, and none walked. People with little formal education earn low incomes. For them, the affordable means of transport are walking, travelling by bus or truck, or cycling—all of which expose them to high risks for road traffic injuries.
People in developing countries are frequently aware of these risks. A regular commuter on the buses in Lagos, Nigeria—which are referred to locally as danfos, “flying coffins,” or molue, “moving morgues”—said, “Many of us know most of the buses are death traps but since we can’t afford the expensive taxi fares, we have no choice but to use the buses.”…
The injury profile for road traffic crashes in developing countries differs in important ways from the profile seen in developed countries, and it can provide guidance for making policies to improve prevention and control. Protection is needed for three main vulnerable groups—pedestrians, who in urban areas constitute up to 70% of the fatalities; passengers commuting on buses, trucks and minibuses, who constitute the next largest population group affected; and cyclists.
Traffic fatalities are a leading cause of death in South Africa, as Mobility Magazine reports:
In the 2007/2008 research year, between 14-18 000 people were killed on the roads in South Africa (18 487 were murdered in that same time period). There are approximately 800 000 crashes per year — we’re the third worst in the world per capita. Road deaths are the second highest cause of accidental death in the 0-18 age group, and 22 people become permanently disabled every day. Our driving behaviour costs the country about R47 billion a year.
The Mobility article goes on to cite the recommendations of Dr. Marianne Vanderschuren from the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Transport Studies. The solution to road crashes is a combination of “education, enforcement, engineering, environment, encouraging innovation, and evaluation.”
In Tanzania, there were 10,000 traffic fatalities in 2002, amounting to 3.0 deaths per 10,000 people. In that same year, there were only 140 registered vehicles per 10,000 people. For every 10,000 people in the United States, in comparison, there are about 8,000 registered vehicles but only 1.1 traffic fatalities. In other words, per capita, the United States has 60 times the number of vehicles that Tanzania does and only 1/3 of the traffic fatalities.
A number of groups are trying to address this neglected epidemic. Tanzania’s transport regulator (SUMATRA), Association of Passenger Advocates (CHAKUA), Public Cyclists of Dar es Salaam (UWABA), Amend, and other groups joined together to sponsor Tanzania’s participation in the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims.
STN's Stewart is a graduate of Swarthmore College and a recipient of a 2010 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a grant to study abroad. Stewart's project is "School Bus Migrations: Recycling Transit in the Global South." Follow his blog and see more photos from his journey.