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Traffic Death Around the World: Certain to Grow Worse Before It Improves

With one million deaths and more than 23 million injuries resulting from motor vehicle accidents worldwide each year, road safety problems have clearly grown to epidemic proportions.

Even worse, this public health issue disproportionately affects vulnerable road users in the developing world—where more than 85 percent of road casualties occur—even though these countries account for only 32 percent of the global vehicle fleet.

Recent trends indicate that the situation is becoming critical in developing nations, where the risk of dying in traffic accidents has increased by double and triple digit percentages within the past 15 years. In industrialized countries, by contrast, road death rates have declined by 25 to 60 percent over the same period.

These observations led RFF Research Assistant Elizabeth Kopits to investigate these patterns and examine the relationship between road safety and economic growth. In the literature on environmental externalities, for example, one finds that some pollutants such as soot and smog at first increase with national income, reach a peak, and then decline. Does a similar pattern hold for the death rate due to traffic fatalities? If so, what does it imply about the future course of road deaths in developing countries?

Kopits’ findings indicate the per capita income at which traffic fatality risk—fatalities as a percentage of population—begins to decline is $8600 (in 1985 dollars), the approximate level of income experienced in most European countries in the early 1970s. This tipping point is driven by the rate of decline in fatalities per vehicle as income rises, because vehicles as a proportion of population—while increasing with income at a more gradual rate—never declines with economic growth.

If historic trends continue, projections of future traffic fatalities based on the Kopits model suggest that the global road death toll will grow by approximately 66 percent over the next twenty years. This number, however, reflects divergent rates of change in different parts of the world: a decline in fatalities in high-income countries of approximately 28 percent, versus an increase in fatalities of almost 92 percent in China and 147 percent in India. The road death rate is projected to rise to approximately 2 per 10,000 persons in developing countries by 2020, while it will fall to less than 1 per 10,000 in high-income countries.

These forecasts served as input to a new report entitled “World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention,” a joint World Health Organization / World Bank comprehensive overview of what is known about the magnitude, risk factors, and impact of road traffic injuries. The numbers were featured in widespread media coverage surrounding the release of the report on WHO World Health Day, April 7, 2004, including The New York Times (“Motor-Vehicle-Related Deaths Will Increase, Study Predicts) and the Washington Post (Traffic Fatalities a Growing Threat Worldwide, WHO Reports).

***

Elizabeth Kopits, a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of Maryland, and Maureen Cropper describe the traffic fatality model and assumptions made for the projections in “Traffic Fatalities and Economic Growth” (forthcoming in Accident Analysis and Prevention).

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