Death on the Road
The dangers of streets and highways here and around the world
AS LONG AS drivers make mistakes, people will die on the road. But a report from the World Health Organization argues that streets and highways here and abroad do not have to be as dangerous as they are now.
The organization calculated that traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds, rising above even the devastating scourge of HIV-AIDS. About 1.2 million people of all age groups die in crashes around the world every year. Worst off are people in poor countries where, among other things, children play in the streets, bicycle and foot paths are rare, and public education on dangerous driving is scant.
Though traffic deaths worldwide rival those caused by malaria or tuberculosis, the problem does not get as much attention, and even if it did, expensive safety regulations might not be popular or economical. Still, there are costeffective ways to reduce vulnerability in underdeveloped regions. The second edition of “Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries,” a volume recently produced by a large international public health collaboration, estimates that speed bumps cost about $5 for every year of life they save or year of disability they prevent. Development organizations and their donors should encourage such easy and inexpensive methods of reducing traffic deaths in countries they assist.
The problem is not as deadly in the United States, but it is still huge. Around 40,000 people a year die in traffic accidents in this country. Look no further than the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey this month to witness the dangers of driving, especially when you don’t follow the rules. New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) remains in intensive care after his speeding sport-utility vehicle crashed as its driver tried to avoid a swerving pickup. Mr. Corzine was not wearing his seat belt.
For Americans, the perennial lesson is clear: Wear your seat belt and follow traffic laws. Though improvement in roads and rules is possible, last week’s WHO report underscores the fact that Americans are privileged to drive on relatively well-built and well-regulated highways and streets, and public awareness about the importance of safe driving is high. If everyone obeyed traffic laws as they know they should, tragic cases such as Mr. Corzine’s would be rarer. In poor countries, meanwhile, there’s far more that could be done.