Expert Commentary

Road safety and motor vehicle crashes: Surveying global and U.S. data

2013 World Health Organization report and a survey of U.S.-related data that shed light on the continuing problems of motor vehicle accidents and related policy dynamics.

Car wreck

According to preliminary figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2012 there were 34,080 fatalities on U.S. highways and roads, including drivers, motorcyclists, cyclists, and pedestrians. Worse, the figure represents a 5.3% increase over 2011’s total of 32,367, reversing a long-time trend in the United States of declining deaths from motor-vehicle crashes.

The estimated annual cost of traffic fatalities and injuries in the U.S. exceeds $99 billion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A number of groups are particularly at risk for traffic accidents and fatalities. In 2011, there were 1,987 traffic deaths of drivers between 15 and 20 years old, while 5,401 people 65 and older were killed in crashes. Motorcyclists accounted for 4,612 fatalities in 2011: “Per vehicle mile traveled in 2011, motorcyclists were more than 30 times more likely than passenger car occupants to die in a motor vehicle traffic crash,” the CDC writes. Personal behavior has a role: Of motorcyclists or their passengers who died, 40% were not wearing helmets at the time of the crash. According to the CDC, 16% of traffic crash fatalities were vulnerable road users — pedestrians (4,432), bicyclists (667), and others (198).

Driver behavior is a significant contributor to road deaths. In 2011, 31% of total traffic fatalities — 9,878 — involved alcohol. Texting and cell phone usage is also on the rise, contributing to 3,300 traffic deaths, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Research has shown that drivers who use a cell phone while driving can exhibit greater impairment than intoxicated drivers. In addition, hands-free systems were found to cause the same amount of impairment as hand-held phones.

The worldwide prevalence of traffic deaths has prompted the United Nations to declare 2011-2020 the “Decade of Action for Road Safety.” As more countries work to adopt policies to curb the rising issue of traffic fatalities and injuries, more research must be done about best practices and policies to reduce such fatalities and injuries. Advanced technology such as Google’s “driverless cars” may eventually make driving less susceptible to human error, but until then, much work remains to be done finding real-world solutions rather than high-tech distractions.

A 2013 report by the World Health Organization (WHO), “Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013: Supporting a Decade of Action,” examines the frequency of road traffic fatalities and the public safety interventions made to reduce them globally. The study utilizes country-level data based on datasets consolidated by WHO-trained National Data Coordinators working with road-safety experts from the health, police, transport sectors as well as NGOs and academia. The methodology is based on the first WHO Road Safety study of 2009, and improves upon it by including data on cell phone use while driving and fatalities by age group, among other updates in the questionnaire.

Key findings include:

  • More than 1.24 million people die every year as a result of road traffic injuries, making it “the eighth leading cause of death globally, and the leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 29.” It is projected to be the fifth leading cause of death globally by 2030 based on current trends.
  • Since the WHO 2009 report, there has been “no overall reduction in the number of people killed on the world’s roads,” but given that there has been a 15% increase in registered vehicles globally, this may actually be a sign of improved road safety.
  • Between 2007 and 2010, 88 countries, accounting for 1.6 billion people, experienced a decrease in their road deaths. Among these 88 countries, 42 were high-income; 41 middle-income; and five low-income. Eighty-seven countries, primarily low and middle-income, experienced an increase in road deaths in this same period.
  • Middle-income countries make up 80% of road traffic deaths, while only accounting for 52% of the world’s registered vehicles. Low-income countries make up only 1% of the world’s registered vehicles, but account for a disproportionate 12% of traffic deaths.
  • The regions that displayed the highest rate of road traffic deaths per 100,000 people were Africa (24.3), the Eastern Mediterranean (21.3) and the Western Pacific region (18.5). The lowest rates were found in Europe (10.3) and the Americas (16.1).
  • The demographic groups that comprise the majority of road traffic deaths are men (77%) and young adults between the ages of 15 and 44 (59%).
  • Road users who are not in vehicles, such as pedestrians and cyclists, account for 27% of road deaths. In lower- and middle-income countries, they account for almost of one-third of all road deaths, and as much as 75% in some countries.
  • “Road safety legislation has been strengthened in 35 countries, representing almost 10% of the world’s population.” These countries passed laws that addressed at least one of five key road safety risk factors: “speed, [drunk] driving, motorcycle helmet use, seat belts, and child restraints.”
  • There are 94 countries with “national laws that address all five key risk factors to some degree”; however, there has not been an increase in the number of countries that address all five factors. “Only 28 countries (with just 7% of the world’s population) have comprehensive laws in all five areas.”
  • “Only 59 countries, covering just 39% of the world’s population (2.67 billion people), have implemented an urban speed limit of 50 km/h or less and allow local authorities to reduce these limits.”
  • “Since 2008, 10 countries have improved their [drunk]-driving laws to meet best practice (blood alcohol concentration of 0.05 g/dl or less), helping protect 186 million people.”
  • Overall, 111 countries, covering 69% of the world’s population, currently have comprehensive seat belt laws. Of these countries, 10 have instituted such laws since 2008.
  • There are currently 96 countries with laws requiring seat-belt use for children. The majority, 88%, of high-income countries have such laws, compared to only 43% of middle-income and 30% of low-income countries.

The study finds that while some progress has been made in road safety legislation, road traffic deaths continue to be a major public-safety issue. The study goes on to make three key suggestions for the future of global road safety. First, “countries need to increase adoption of comprehensive legislation related to key risk factors for road traffic injuries.” Second, more resources need to be dedicated to the enforcement of road safety laws, given that “enforcement of laws relating to key risk factors is considered poor in most countries.” Finally, more attention must be given to pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, as they begin to comprise more of the world’s road traffic, and subsequently its fatalities.

Tags: cars, safety, cycling, distracted driving

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