Death on the Road

The dan­gers of streets and high­ways here and around the world

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook -

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.

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