Roads Will Be More Deadly Than HIV/AIDS In 20 Years

As roads are getting safer and safer in rich countries and cities, roads are only getting more and more deadly in the developing world. How deadly? By 2030, they'll likely kill more people per year than HIV/AIDs.

Let me sum this up quickly: roads in the poorest parts of the world can be 250 times more deadly than roads in the richest parts of the world. What the poor countries' roads are lacking are really basic features - sidewalks, safe crosswalks, and campaigns to get people to wear helmets and seatbelts.

So now I'll elaborate more on this news, which comes from the January 25th issue of The Economist, which I read on the plane a few weeks back and then forgot about until I rooted around in my briefcase just a few minutes ago.

Yes, roads in developing countries are dangerous and are getting more dangerous, particularly in comparison to roads in rich places. For every 100,000 cars on the road in developed countries fewer that 15 people die per year from road crashes, The Economist reports. In Ethiopa, for example, that figure is 250 times higher.

The Economist goes on to note that road crashes in poor and middle income countries accounted for 1.2 million deaths globally in 2011. In developed countries that figure is around 99,000. What's more, road accidents in developing countries kill more people than malaria does, or tuberculosis. The Economist cites the World Health Organization, which expects global deaths from car crashes to reach two million per year by 2030. That's how many people are projected to die from HIV/AIDs in that year.

With deaths from road accidents rising much faster than deaths from HIV/AIDS, you can expect that roads will be the deadlier of the two after 2030.

Car crashes are already the leading cause of death for 15- to 29-year-olds worldwide, with most of those deaths being men and boys. The Economist points out that these represent major earners for households, meaning serious financial setbacks for families. The Economist reports that these crashes can cost the poorest countries in the world some 10% of their GDP.

Why are developing roads so dangerous? Not only do they not receive enough investment and maintenance, they're getting flooded with brand-new drivers and they're being lined with unaccustomed, unprotected pedestrians. 84% of the roads in the world don't have sidewalks, The Economist reports, and safe places to cross are woefully inadequate as well. In the poorest countries, pedestrians account for the most deaths. In somewhat richer countries, motorbike riders (typically serving as transportation for whole families) top the figures, and only in more prosperous middle-income countries do car and truck passengers account for the most fatalities in road accidents.

What's somewhat encouraging is many of these deaths are easily and cheaply prevented. The Economist estimates that the cost of preventing a death in Sub-Saharan Africa by putting speed bumps at deadly intersections could be just $7. Bangladesh has put in fences between cars and pedestrians at an estimated cost of $135 per prevented death.

While rich countries work on expensive safety features like increasingly rigorous crash test requirements, there's still a huge amount of work to be done in the rest of the world on simpler, cheaper solutions, like getting motorcycle riders to wear helmets and car drivers to wear seatbelts.

You can read the WHO's report on road safety and find all of their data on crashes right here, and you can read The Economist's two recent reports Reinventing the Wheel and Driving to an early grave here and here, respectively.

Photo Credit: Mark Hillary, "oil tanker crash on the road north from Abuja in Nigeria," taken in 2008