Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Road Accidents Top Travel Death List

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, January 12 / 15

Zack Gross

2014 was a terrible year for airplane crashes and deaths, the worst in a decade.  This has led to the traveling public mistakenly believing that flying is a particularly dangerous way to get around, but the truth is that it is relatively safe and it is actually ordinary road travel that is really to be feared. 

Over 1200 passengers and crew died last year in air crashes, 700 in tragedies involving Malaysia-based airlines.  The previous year, 2013 was actually the safest year since World War II, with only 265 deaths.  What sets 2014 apart is the high number of deaths, while the actual number of plane crashes, 111, is the least since commercial jet flights began in 1949.

Five million people every year are killed by “accidental” physical injury.  This figure includes 1.25 million road accident deaths, or about 3500 per day.  This number has been growing from year to year so that the World Health Organization of the United Nations by 2012 listed this category in its ten leading causes of death worldwide, along with a variety of diseases, tobacco use and maternal/child deaths. 

Between 20 and 50  million people are injured on the road, much of this going unreported, and often resulting in disabilities.  Injuries and deaths also cause economic dislocation for their families, with the cost of lost income and productivity, cost of treatment and rehabilitation, and lost wages for family to care for accident victims.

Globally, the leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 29 is traffic injuries and three-quarters of these deaths are males.  As well, half the people who are killed are “vulnerable road users
,” that is pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists.  Over 90% of all traffic deaths take place in middle or lower income countries even though these countries only have half the world’s vehicles.  WHO believes that only 28 countries, representing just 7% of the world’s population, have adequate laws to address risk factors such as speeding, drunk driving, helmet and seatbelt use and child restraints.

Economists estimate that countries around the world lose up to 3% of their Gross National Product (GNP), overall some $500 billion, while road accidents cause families to increase their debt and sink deeper into poverty, causing a decline in their nutrition and health.  By 2020, the number of roadside deaths will increase, unless a concerted safety effort is made, from 1.25 to 1.9 million.

What needs to be done to improve this situation isn’t a lot different from what we all talk about at the kitchen table every day.  For instance, drivers need to slow down.  School and residential areas would have fewer accidents and injuries/deaths if all had 30 km speed limits.  This would also improve our health and environment with fewer emissions.

Blood-alcohol concentration limits need to be set legally at .04 or lower everywhere that people drive in order to reduce crashes, and random breath testing programs, which are proven cost effective, lead to reductions of up to 20% in alcohol-related incidents.  Motorcycle helmets with appropriate safety features and worn as recommended, and helmet laws, properly enforced, are game-changers:  90% of the public will follow these regulations and thus the risk of death is reduced by 40% and risk of injury by 70%.

Seatbelt use reduces the risk of death and injury by 50% and child restraints reduce infant and child deaths by about three-quarters.  Distracted driving caused by use of mobile phones, talking and texting, are a relatively new form of risk factor and some governments are taking steps to deal with this issue.

There is no question that most high income societies are taking steps to improve roads and fund police and ambulance services that save lives.  These rich countries are also developing and enforcing auto safety and driver behaviour regulations that make driving safer than in poorer countries.  Traffic in Third World cities and on their highways is a hodge-podge of trucks, cars, buses, taxi vans, bikes and motorcycles, often filled beyond capacity with passengers and products for delivery.  Stop signs and traffic lights are few and far between.

Vehicles spew black smoke, have headlights that don’t work and drivers that aren’t always well trained.  When pulled over for a check stop, a bribe is often what the enforcer is after, rather than a serious inspection.  The World Health Organization is working to improve this situation and we are currently in the middle of an official Decade of Action for Road Safety with the aim of saving lives in 110 signatory countries.

For those who are concerned about air travel, likely what influences them is that when a plane comes down, a significant number of people are lost.  With road fatalities, the casualty rate tends to be one or two at a time, thus lulling us into thinking that the problem is not as great as it actually is. 

Save travels!

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of Brandon’s  the
Marquis Project, and someone who has spent a lot of time commuting by car and traveling by plane.

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