The United Nations has declared the week of April 23 the first Global Road Safety Week to raise awareness of the high death and injury toll from automobile accidents. The situation is worst in developing countries, particularly among youth. As VOA's David McAlary reports from Washington, the sharp rise in traffic deaths is a deadly, unintended consequence of economic modernization.
The worldwide highway death toll rivals that caused by some infectious diseases. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies calls the situation a worsening disaster destroying lives and livelihoods, and hampering development.
The World Health Organization says 1.2 million people die in road crashes every year and 50 million more are hurt, at an estimated cost of more than $500 billion in lost income and disability. The agency says that without appropriate action, road traffic casualties will rise 66 percent by 2020 to become the third leading contributor to the global burden of disease, up from the ninth position in 1990.
The problem is most severe in developing nations, where the economic cost is expected to exceed the foreign aid they get. In Australia, University of Sydney Australia public health professor Robyn Norton says traffic deaths in industrial nations are expected to drop nearly 30 percent by 2020. But China, for example, could have almost twice as many as now and India two-and-a-half times more.
"You see the demise of the bicycle in China and the rise of the motor vehicle. It is dramatic. So it is not surprising that we are on the start of what will be a major epidemic," she said.
The first U.N. Global Road Safety Week focuses on youth, the age group that bears the brunt of this epidemic. The World Health Organization says road accidents kill nearly 400,000 people under 25, mostly male. That is one-third of the global total.
Traffic mishaps are the leading killer of 15-to-19-year olds worldwide and the second leading cause of death for adolescents.
The U.N. initiative is the result of a 2005 General Assembly road-safety resolution instigated by a World Health Organization report on the problem. Norton says 42 agencies worldwide have collaborated to focus on the issue.
"What has happened over the last couple of years has been an incredible about face - increasing recognition," she added. "Governments are now starting to recognize that this is an issue. But I still do not think people appreciate the extent of the epidemic."
Although automobile casualties are rising on developing nation roads, the most vulnerable highway travelers are still those on foot or two wheels. In a recent article in the medical journal Lancet, Norton and colleagues from Mexico's National Public Health Institute and the University of Auckland, New Zealand cite studies showing that motorcyclists and bicyclists have high injury rates in Asia, while pedestrians are the most often hurt in Africa.
The World Health Organization recommends that low and middle income nations adopt road safety practices that have reduced traffic casualties in rich countries in recent decades, despite increases in the number of drivers and motor vehicles.
Norton says isolated experiences show that they can be transferred. Introducing speed bumps in Ghana cut traffic deaths in half. Use of daytime running lights on motorcycles reduced fatal crashes in Singapore 15 percent. Other successful measures include graduated driver licensing systems for teenagers and installation of seat belts.
"We know, again, that seat belts and other protective measures are very effective in reducing morbidity and mortality in road traffic crashes, but in many low and middle income countries, seat belts are not even fitted into cars," Norton said.
In their recent study of the situation, Norton and her co-researchers from Mexico and New Zealand call for nations to establish programs to monitor their particular patterns of highway accidents and to track how preventive strategies work.
"Aspirations for cars are part of what people see as their right, but it does come with a price," she said.