John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Unsafe roads and driving laws allow the global traffic-death rate to remain "unacceptably high," according to the World Health Organization.
When traveling to another country, it's sometimes helpful to get a bead on the local road conditions by checking in with one's own government. For example, here's the U.S. State Department's traffic advisory for Liberia:
Potholes and poor road surfaces are common, making safe driving extremely challenging. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, and taxis are often overloaded with people and goods and make frequent stops without signaling. Drivers overtake on the right as well as the left. Many vehicles operate with threadbare tires, and blowouts are frequent. Public taxis are poorly maintained and usually overloaded. Drivers should approach intersections with extreme caution. The widespread absence of public street lights makes it difficult to see pedestrians walking in city streets or on country roads. Drivers and pedestrians are cautioned that high-speed car convoys carrying government officials require all other vehicles to pull off the road until they have passed.
That paragraph alone might be enough to get a nervous person to switch flight destinations. But it's unfair to pick on Liberia in this case, as there are scads of countries where getting on the road is like playing Russian roulette with two-ton battering rams. This year alone, more than 1.24 million people have died in traffic accidents, a devastating toll that in the absence of action could shoot up to 3.6 million deaths by 2030, according to road-safety data from the World Health Organization.
Much of the carnage comes from developing nations, where road fatalities are set to become the fifth-leading cause of death above scourges like malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis. Vehicle accidents remain the leading way that people aged 15 to 29 continue to die worldwide.
Where on the planet are you most likely to perish in an implosion of crumpled metal and flying glass? The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting has the answer with this grimly fascinating tour of world traffic safety, titled (in the best learner's-ed shock-video manner possible) the "Roads Kill Map." Open it up and you'll find the globe washed in sickly shades of olive and yellow, with the darkest hue representing the highest number of road deaths (more than 30 per 100,000 people). Let's take a tour of some of the highlights and lowlights, yes?
The U.S. is coasting along moderately well, a fact that the Pulitzer Center attributes to early adoption of manufacturing-safety standards and drunk-driving laws as well as smartly engineered highways. Yet there's room for much improvement, as the national rate of 11.4 road fatalities per 100,000 citizens is worse than that of other comparably wealthy countries. The safest industrialized nation is Sweden, for what it's worth, with 3 deaths per 100,000 citizens.
Nigeria has an abysmal record of safety with more than 30 deaths per 100,000 people. "In a surprising number of countries, not knowing how to drive is no hindrance to obtaining a driver’s license or getting behind the wheel," explains the Pulitzer crew. "In Nigeria, the Federal Road Safety Commission only recently made it compulsory for new drivers to take driving lessons and pass a test before obtaining a license; in the past you could simply buy a license."
In general, the situation in Africa is shabby compared to other continents. It's particularly bad if you're standing outside a vehicle, as nearly 40 percent of road deaths in Africa come from autos careening into pedestrians. The country with the highest percentage of pedestrian killings – 66 percent of all road deaths – is Liberia, a land of scarred pavement and screeching tires.
In South Africa, the trouble is seat belts, which can reduce the risk of death or maiming by 75 percent. The country requires motorists to use them but does a terrible job in enforcing that mandate. The national auto association did a survey in 2007 that revealed only about half of people in cars wear belts.
As any fan of Russian dash-cam videos can attest, the quality of driving in the country leaves much to be desired. It suffers from a fatality rate twice that of the U.S. and five times greater than many European nations. Southward in China, there is low enforcement of seat-belt and helmet usage but a strong (self-reported) intolerance for drunken driving. Still, with a huge number of cars on the road and often lax attitude toward traffic laws, the republic consistently takes top score for the number of road deaths internationally.
In Southeast Asia, there's good news and bad. The traffic in Indonesia has improved recently thanks to the government's implementation of bus lanes, for instance. But in Vietnam, where scooters and motorcycles make up 95 percent of registered vehicles, there continues to be a major health risk in that few people wear adequate armor. More than 80 percent of helmets that bikers own fail to meet the lowest of safety standards, according to a survey.
Not that many of us will ever get to visit North Korea, but rest assured it has absolutely flawless traffic standards. That's at least according to what the dictatorship told the WHO, claiming perfect scores across the board for things like adherence to speed limits and sober driving. The only other country making a similar claim for infallibility behind the wheel was Uzbekistan.
Images courtesy of the Pulitzer Center