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Deadly Roads - The Cost of International Development?

The World Bank and the World Health Organization have reported that more than one million people are killed each year in road accidents worldwide, and as many as 50 million are injured. They warn those figures could increase by 65-percent over the next 20 years if preventive action isn’t taken. Now, a British professor says that too often in Africa, traffic accidents are a byproduct of international companies doing business in poor countries.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Professor Ian Roberts says, “It is much more profitable to run businesses in poor countries where wages are low.” Adding, “If businesses had to pay the full social and environmental costs of transport then trade would be much less efficient and they would show little enthusiasm for it.”

He writes, “The human cost of transport is not paid by global business but by Africans.” And the cost, he says, is “staggering.”

He says, "Very few Africans own a car. Very few Africans own private vehicles. So, like in Tanzania I think vehicle ownership stands at about one to two vehicles per thousand population. So, a lot of these road deaths and injuries in Africa are related to commercial activities of companies. So, these companies are often big, multi-national companies. They make a lot of profit. The point of the article was that road death and injury was cost of their business activities that they don’t really pay. So, Africans pay the cost and they take the profit. They’re internalizing the profit and externalizing the cost."

Road accidents in sub-Saharan Africa are frequent and often deadly.

"Road deaths and injuries in Africa are a major issue. It’s got some of the highest road death rates in the world. About 200,000 Africans will die on the roads every year and that’s probably an underestimate, too, because they’re notoriously under reported. For every one of those deaths there’ll be about 30 to 70 serious injuries, permanent disabilities. It’s a major carnage that’s being completely overlooked," he says.

The 2004 World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention – put out by the World Bank and WHO – says many accidents are preventable. Professor Roberts – an epidemiology professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – agrees.

He says, "First of all, public transport is safer than private transport. So, public transport systems are important, urban design, road design – a few of the structural things. Next you get into things like enforcing road safety rules, simple things like speeding, drunk driving, fatigue. Then you get down to vehicle design things. You can design vehicles very easily that dramatically reduce the risk of death if you get struck by one. Next is to improve hospital care for the victims of injury."

Professor Roberts says big business and African governments must address the issue and invest in safety measures. He’s says it’s difficult to learn how much the injured or families of those killed are compensated. He says companies often don’t make those figures public. But he doubts the figures are comparable to Western standards.

"Compared to the extent of the problem, the level of interest in this is outrageously small, which is disastrous because there are lots of things you can do. So, for example, AIDS in Africa is a big problem. But the trouble is we don’t know a lot about effective interventions. With road death and injury there’s loads of things we know are effective, but we’re just not doing them," he says.

Professor Robert’s article – Death on the Road to International Development – appears in the April 23 issue of the British Medical Journal.