Roads Kill: Mapping the Automobile’s Global Body Count

“If road fatalities are viewed as a disease, the United States has proven that it is one that can be eradicated. The North American country had only 3 road deaths per 100,000 citizens in 2010, the lowest among industrialized nations.”

Imagine if the U.S. really did have the safest streets in the industrialized world. Tens of thousands of lives would be saved each year. But as you’ll see on the Pulitzer Center’s Roads Kill Map, we’ve substituted “the United States” for “Sweden” – the actual global leader on traffic safety, with an aggressive national strategy to eradicate vehicular deaths.

As for the U.S., we were “an early pioneer in road safety standards,” but “with 11.4 deaths per 100,000 citizens, the U.S.’s overall driving record is still poor compared to other wealthy nations,” according to the Pulitzer Center.

With the Roads Kill map, the Pulitzer Center set out to raise awareness of the various forms that vehicular carnage takes around the world, and how the epidemic of traffic fatalities can be quelled.

The global road death toll has already reached 1.24 million per year and is on course to triple to 3.6 million per year by 2030.

In the developing world, where this pandemic has hit hardest, it will become the fifth leading cause of death, leapfrogging past HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other familiar killers, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) most recent Global Burden of Disease study.

Three years into the UN’s “Decade of Action” on road safety — with its goal of saving 5 million lives over the course of the decade — the problem is only getting worse in many places.

Different factors contribute to traffic deaths in different places. The Pulitzer Center’s map shows where alternative vehicles, like three-wheelers, are beginning to pose problems, notes that traffic deaths spike around Carnivale in Brazil, and identifies a host of other traffic issues of particular importance to specific countries.

Under-reporting is rampant — Pakistan reported fewer than 5,200 highway fatalities in 2010, but the WHO thinks it’s actually upwards of 30,000. North Korea gave itself perfect scores on all aspects of road safety compliance.

A new drunk driving law in the Phillippines could help lower its rate of 9.1 traffic deaths per 100,000 people. “But the new law fails to establish a legal blood alcohol content level for intoxication — leaving that to the judgment of the police,” the Pulitzer Center says. “Critics of the law see it as a golden opportunity for police to collect bribes.”

In Liberia, pedestrians account for 66 percent of road deaths.

Australia just may be the next Sweden. The Pulitzer Center calls the country “the poster boy for reforming bad habits.” Known for being the world’s most reckless drivers in the 1970s, Aussies have cleaned up their act and reduced traffic fatalities by 80 percent. Australia’s traffic safety performance now rivals that of many European countries.