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Asia's Streets are World's Deadliest

Asia is fast becoming the world's ground zero for traffic deaths. The reason is a killer combination of inexperienced drivers and more than 20,000 new cars a day reaching over-crowded and poorly maintained roads.

Even before sunrise, the streets of New Delhi are clogged with buzzing and belching cars, buses, trucks, and motorcycles. It is the same across most of Asia - from India to Indonesia, Beijing to Bangkok.

To economists, the sound of traffic is the sound of success. It means jobs and, with rising incomes, people rushing out to buy cars and motorbikes.

In China, where the economy has been in overdrive, car ownership has shot up more than 40 percent in just three years.

All this traffic has made Asia the world leader in traffic deaths, with more than 600,000 a year.

Greig Craft runs the charitable Asia Injury Prevention Foundation in Vietnam, where every day over a hundred people are killed or seriously injured on the roads. "This is truly a war, it's a new war. Innocent people are being killed; they're being maimed. Hospitals are gridlocked, doctors can not perform even the most rudimentary surgeries or health care because they are tied up 24-seven with trauma from accidents," he says.

And while Asia has only 16 percent of the world's traffic, it claims more than half of the 1.2 million people who die on its roads each year.

Etienne Krug, the World Health Organization's director of Injury and Violence Prevention, says that in China alone, more than 200,000 people are killed. "Most of these people victimized on the roads are pedestrians, people on bicycles, people on motorcycles," she says.

Asia's disproportionately high traffic accident rate results from several factors.

First, many of its cities' streets and its highways are old and simply cannot cope with today's fast-moving vehicles.

Second, many new car owners are young and inexperienced drivers. In the Chinese capital, Beijing, there are 20,000 new drivers every month.

Complicating the problem is the vast number of mopeds and motorcycles, popular because they are inexpensive and easy to handle.

This is especially so with the fast-growing middle class in countries like Vietnam, says Mr. Craft of the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation. "One of the first acquisitions is to run out and get a motorcycle, which basically has become the family mode of transportation. It's not unusual to see three, four, even five people on one motorbike driving around," he says.

In 1989, Vietnam's roads had only about half a million vehicles of any type. Today there are at least 14 million and 90 percent of them are motorcycles.

Two-wheelers may be cheap and convenient, but they give riders no protection.

In Thailand, four out of five fatal accidents involve a motorcycle or a moped.

There are solutions, but the challenge is in getting governments to commit the resources that will make a difference.

Anthony Bliss, the World Bank's senior traffic specialist, says keeping it simple can make all the difference. "Simple things like bringing speed down. Simple things like getting people to wear helmets, getting seatbelts in cars," he says.

Vietnam has got the message. It made it mandatory for motorcycle riders to wear crash helmets. China is thinking about carrying out a massive road-safety education program for new drivers.

And in this, the WHO's "Year of Road Safety," that message seems especially appropriate.