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.

9 thoughts on Roads Kill: Mapping the Automobile’s Global Body Count

  1. I understand the point your first two paragraphs are trying to make – specifically the aspiration for better US safety standards and fatality rates. I can’t speak for anyone else, but it took me several attempts for that point to come across, even once I clicked on the linked map.

    That said, the map looks like a great tool for spreading awareness – thanks for highlighting it via this article!

  2. Like so many other statistics these days, the U.S. appears closer to a third world country than a first world one.

  3. It doesn’t help that Americans view that the “right to drive” as sacrosanct, thereby ensuring that we’ll continue to require the barest minimum from our citizens before issuing them a license. Several of my European friends couldn’t get licenses because the tests are extremely difficult AND expensive…so if you fail (which is common), you can’t just waltz back in a few days later and have a free do-over.

  4. What a great point. Obtaining a licence should be much more difficult; only a small fraction of those who currently have a licence should have actually been able to obtain one.

    In a sane society, most people would be unable to pass a driver’s test, and would never get a licence. Unfortunately, we don’t have a sane society; and so social norms and public policy have for generations been built upon the wrongheaded practice of giving out driver’s licences essentially for the asking.

  5. I suspect that any move to tighten driver licensing in the US would be greeted with subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) pressure from the automobile industry to “back off”, and not do anything to cut down on the market for vehicles. Also, the “authorities” realize that in many parts of the US, taking away a person’s license is seen as equivalent to “house arrest” and are reluctant to impose such a penalty except in the most egregious cases.

    There’s a taunt leveled at some really incompetent drivers: “Where did you get your license, nitwit? In a box of cornflakes?”

  6. You’ve hit on one of the biggest flaws in our country when it comes to licensing drivers. We’ve built a lot of our country to discriminate against non-drivers. You NEED to drive to participate in society. Denying someone a license is seen as overly punitive unless they’ve done something really atrocious. And so, we have people take a simple test once when they’re young and never, ever test them again in most cases. It’s really idiotic.

  7. So, I wonder how these rates compare to the availability of transit in each country. In most of the US, denying someone a license is just one step up from house arrest, so we’re extremely reluctant to do so. I imagine that’s not the case for countries where the middle class can and does get around mostly by transit.

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