Poor countries have half the world’s cars but almost all of its fatal car accidents

The morning commute is a deathtrap.
The morning commute is a deathtrap.
Image: Reuters/Kamal Kishore
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Heart disease, cancer and diabetes, continue to plague the world, but another cause of death is quickly creeping its way up the list. According to new data released by the World Health Organization (WHO), for the first time ever car accidents have breached the top ten list for causes of death worldwide.

Top ten leading causes of death
Top ten leading causes of death.
Image: World Health Organization

In 2000, roughly 2,800 people died each day from road accidents, but in 2011 that number jumped 25% to 3,500. Presumably, a growing world population and subsequent number of people driving cars are to blame. But the problem is, fatal car accident rates are rising faster than population growth, and much faster than motorization rates—the number of registered vehicles grew by only 15% from 2000 to 2011. If the current trend continues, car accidents will be the fifth leading cause of death in the world by 2030.

While scores of countries have moved to tighten traffic laws, lower speeding limits, and promote seatbelt use and safety awareness regarding alcohol and mobile phone use, the most pervasive problems come from poor infrastructure. Small, overcrowded roads, poorly lit highways, and an absence of dividers and sidewalks significantly up the risk of fatal accidents. And older vehicles, which are far less suited to absorb and withstand accidents, only contributes further to existing vulnerabilities. Low- and middle-income countries accounted for 92% of road traffic deaths, but had only 53% of registered vehicles in 2011.

Road traffic deaths
Image: World Health Organization

The reality is that the majority of motor vehicle-related deaths occur among pedestrians. In low- and middle-income countries, where large swaths of the population get around by foot and bicycle, the numbers are even more skewed. In Africa, which boasts the highest regional road traffic death rate in the world, a whopping 38% of deaths occurred among pedestrians.

Road traffic deaths per 100,000 population
Image: World Health Organization

High-income countries have managed to curb the number of fatal automobile accidents to below 9%; 42 such countries reported decreases in the number of road traffic deaths between 2007 and 2010. But as the world population continues to swell, particularly in cities, developing proper road and traffic infrastructure in less-developed countries will be essential in curbing the trend of automobile-related deaths. Car accidents, after all, are the leading cause of death for young peopled aged 15- to 29-years old.