WASHINGTON - Deadly traffic accidents are more than just individual tragedies. They're a drag on economic growth in developing countries, according to a new World Bank report.
The study is among the first to show that investing in road safety in low- and middle-income countries would raise national incomes.
Ninety percent of the world's annual 1.25 million traffic deaths happen in the developing world. The World Health Organization says traffic accidents are the leading cause of death worldwide for people between 15 to 29 years old. That includes crashes that kill pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists.
But the issue does not get much official attention, according to World Bank transportation expert Dipan Bose.
"There is not a lot of political will in many low and middle income countries to take definitive actions to reduce road deaths and injuries," he said.
Bose co-authored a study focused on five countries: China, India, Thailand, the Philippines and Tanzania. The authors used economic models to estimate what each country's overall economy would gain over a 24-year period by cutting traffic deaths in half.
"The results were quite startling," he said.
Thailand would see a 22 percent boost to national income. The country's high rates of both economic growth and traffic accidents meant it had the most to gain.
Tanzania would gain seven percent. The other countries fell in between.
These kinds of economic gains are "something which no national government can ignore," Bose said. The report "gives the economic story of why it is important to take strong actions on road safety."
Enforcing speed limits, helmet and seat belt laws and cutting down on drunk driving are "low-hanging fruit" to reduce traffic injuries, the report says.
Not only drivers at fault
But drivers are only partly responsible for traffic deaths, according to a separate report co-authored by the World Bank and the World Resources Institute. City planners and government officials are responsible for building safety into the transportation system.
"If the system's not safe - if people don't have the opportunity to cross the road safely, or drive in a safe vehicle - then a small error can result in a fatality," said report co-author Anna Bray Sharpin at the World Resources Institute. "And that should not be the case."
For example, she said, "many cities have applied highway design guidelines even to their city streets." Wide, multi-lane boulevards are designed for "maximum traffic flow and speed," but not for cyclists or pedestrians.
"People tend to take risks to try and cross the road," she said. "And that comes back to this issue of whether this is a personal responsibility, or a co-responsibility between governments and planners and people using the road."
The report offers guidance for incorporating safety into road design. Public transit, walking and biking lower the number of cars on the road and the number of accidents. Installing sidewalks, raised crosswalks and protected cycle lanes helps keep these road users out of harm's way. On rural roads, median barriers can reduce head-on collisions.
Bray Sharpin notes that many developing countries are currently planning major road infrastructure projects.
"There's a window of opportunity now to integrate safety into their planning," she said. It's much cheaper than trying to retrofit it later. Plus, once these roads are built, they'll be around for decades.
If they don't build in safety now, she added, they will be "locked into their dangerous infrastructure for the very long term."