Traffic collisions are on their way to becoming the easiest way to die in China

China’s rules of the road at work.
China’s rules of the road at work.
Image: Imaginechina via AP Images
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China’s rapid economic development has catapulted it into the world’s economic elite, but the surge in new drivers means that when it comes to road safety, it has a long way to go. Traffic-related injuries went from the 10th most common cause of premature death in 1990, by years of life lost, to the fourth most common in 2010, according to data from the Global Burden of Disease study published recently in the Lancet journal.

The data show that the country’s general health profile is becoming much more similar to a developed country—the fall in maternal disorders is so sharp that women of child-bearing age are six times more likely to die in a road crash than in childbirth. But the decrease in preventable diseases is more than made up for by auto deaths.

This is not a recent phenomenon. A study published by China’s Southeast University shows that between 1951 and 2008, the number of road traffic fatalities increased by a factor of 85. This is partly attributable to the number of cars on the road, but the evidence suggests the problem is wider than that. The UK, for exampe, had 519 vehicles per 1,000 people in 2010 compared to China’s 58, but a resident of China is more than seven times more likely to die in a crash than a resident of the UK.

So what’s killing road users? In about 92% of cases, drivers were at fault, according to another study that pinned most of the blame on speeding, alcohol, careless driving, driving without a license, and driving in the wrong lane. Frequent fatal accidents provide graphic reminders of how dangerous it can be on China’s roads, and illegal license schemes allow some road users to flout the rules.

China is not the worst offender. India became the world’s most dangerous country for road fatalities in 2006, and has climbed ever since. But China’s health profile is far ahead of India’s when it comes to other causes of death. Beijing has put some effort into tackling the problem—China celebrated its first ever national road safety day in December—but the issue is hardly a Communist Party priority. Somehow, cracking down on jaywalking doesn’t quite seem enough.