Major traffic accidents claimed the lives of at least 65 people in India, China and Egypt this past week alone. Rising incomes in the developing world are giving more people the chance to own their first vehicle, but lax safety standards, poorly designed highways and hordes of novice drivers are proving to be a deadly combination.
Tragedy struck China's highways on Monday, when 14 schoolchildren were killed in one accident in Hunan province, and seven people died in a 100-car pileup in neighboring Guizhou.
The dangers faced on China’s increasingly busy roadways have become commonplace in the developing world. Etienne Krug, the director for violence and injury prevention at the World Health Organization in Geneva, says this is an instance where the positive aspects of development can have serious drawbacks.
“New roads are being built, more cars are taking the road, more drivers are taking the road every day by the thousands," he says. "Unfortunately these good developments are not being matched with the necessary safety measures, and road safety has not been given the priority it deserves to match these very quick changes in development.”
India's Traffic Woes
This is no truer than on India’s chaotic roadways, where most of the world's traffic fatalities occur. The latest major accident happened this past Saturday, when mourners traveling from a funeral wound up needing a funeral of their own after a bus crashed into their van. Thirty-six people died in the accident in Uttar Pradesh state.
JP Research, a U.S.-based firm, has been compiling data on accidents like this in India’s Tamil Nadu state. Ravishankar Rajaraman, the group’s project manager in India, says many new roads were modeled after Western highways, which can be problematic because Indian commuting habits are vastly different.
“In India, nearly 70 percent of the vehicles are actually two-wheelers," Rajaraman says. "Cars, passenger cars form only about 15 to 20 percent.”
The big, wide-lane highways that accommodate cars and trucks traveling at high speed in the West become a safety hazard when clogged with two-wheeled vehicles.
“What happens is when vehicles keep moving and changing lanes in order to avoid another vehicle in front, which has stopped to basically take a turn or to take a u-turn, that's when these changing of directions creates problems for two-wheelers which are around,” says Rajaraman.
Lax Safety Standards
New highways often lack proper road signs and lighting, as was the case in Egypt this past Sunday, when a bus driving on a dimly lit road crashed into a parked truck. Eight American tourists were killed in the pre-dawn accident as they drove from Aswan towards the Abu Simbel temple.
Krug, of the WHO, says even if the proper rules are in place, and regulations are followed, drivers and passengers in emerging economies face the added challenge of riding in vehicles with inferior safety mechanisms.
“We see vehicles that look the same in some of these emerging countries but are not the same as the ones that we use because they have been stripped of some of the basic safety measures,” Krug says.
Vehicles targeted for low-income consumers often lack the more expensive safety features of autos sold in the West. But that discount comes with a price. Nearly 1.3 million people die in road accidents every year, most of them in low and middle-income countries, according to the WHO.
Prevention Better Than Cure
Krug says people can reduce that number by strapping on motorbike helmets, wearing seatbelts and not speeding or driving drunk. Governments, he says, should have better trauma response and uphold strict safety rules, as they have in Vietnam.
“We've seen almost overnight after the introduction of motorcycle law in Vietnam an increase from about 20 percent of motorcycle helmet wearing to about 100 percent,” he says.
Another option is to stay off the roads altogether. That was Rajaraman's choice this week when he bought a train ticket to make a 12-hour journey to Mumbai.