Global road casualties: turning the tide

An estimated 1.24 million people die every year on the world’s roads [1]. At Brake, we provide support to bereaved and injured road crash victims, so we know that every road death and serious injury has a devastating impact, Bereaved and injured victims commonly face long-term and acute emotional responses, trauma, health or mobility problems and rehabilitation, domestic upheaval, difficulties working and engaging socially, financial difficulties and other complex practical matters and procedures. The economic impact of deaths and injuries on roads is also staggering: between 1-2% of global GDP is lost through road crashes [2].

There is a growing call for action across the globe. In 2010, the United Nations announced the Decade for Action on Road Safety 2011-20, with the goal of stabilising and then reducing the number of deaths on the world’s roads, aiming to save five million lives. Injuries and death on the roads are increasingly being seen as a public health issue, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) taking a lead in pushing for a reduction in casualties.

The number of road deaths is shockingly high, and has remained static overall between 2007 and 2010. In this period, global road traffic increased by 15% [3]. The picture varies between countries: 88 countries reduced the number of people killed on their roads in this period, whereas 87 countries saw death rates increase [4]. This shows that change is possible, and that through proper action road deaths are preventable. As Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO, puts it: “with sufficient political will, road deaths can be averted.”

Learn more: Read Brake’s advice on running a Road Safety Week in your country.

See the global picture on this map from the Pulitzer Center's Roads Kill project:

Death on the road

Research by the WHO [5] reveals which countries and groups are worst afflicted by road casualties:

  • The worst-affected are the middle-income countries that make up 72% of the world’s population. 80% of global road deaths are in these countries, despite them having only 52% of the world’s motor vehicles. Death rates are highest in Africa – more than four times higher than the richest European countries – despite having far few motor vehicles. In these countries, the number of motor vehicles is increasing rapidly, but most do not yet have the policies in place to protect road users, especially the most vulnerable.
  • Globally, 27% of deaths are of pedestrians and cyclists. However, in low and middle-income countries, this rises to a third, and in some countries it rises to 75%. This reflects patterns of transport in different countries; for example, deaths on motorcycles are the highest in Western Pacific region, where it is a common mode of transport for the poorest in society.
  • 77% of all road deaths are men. 59% of those killed are aged between 15 and 44. This is in part because, globally, the economic and social position of men means that they use the roads significantly more than women. It is also related to male and young road users being more predisposed to take risks than their female and older counterparts [6].

The impact of road casualties

The needless casualties on the world’s roads are sudden, violent and leave a legacy of horrendous suffering. Bereaved families not only face the shock and grief of losing a loved one in sudden, violent and preventable circumstances, but also very often long-term emotional trauma, complex practical matters, financial difficulties, and health problems. Crashes also frequently leave people with life-changing disabilities and brain injuries, in some cases meaning they require round-the-clock care for life, and often accompanied with long-term psychological effects such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

As well as the human impact of road casualties, there is also an economic impact that ripples through society. The annual cost of road crashes falls disproportionately on the poorest in society. It is the poorest children who are most at risk of being killed or seriously injured on our roads, even in richer countries [7]. In many parts of the world, men are the bread-winners, and they are more likely to be killed or seriously injured on the roads. The cost of crashes has been estimated as having a massive impact on the growth of GDP in countries in the developing world, including a 4.6% hit in India and 10.4% in Uganda, exceeding the value of foreign aid to these nations [8]. The impact of road crashes in developing countries often throws the families involved into poverty, or more extreme poverty

Road injuries put a strain on health services. The global health impact is bigger than those of HIV, malaria or tuberculosis [9]. Furthermore, road crashes increase the burden on rural hospitals in the poorest parts of the world [10]. These preventable injuries take away resources that could otherwise be used to fight diseases and mortality in the developing world.

Learn more: Read about Brake’s UK support services for road crash victims, and our work sharing good practice in supporting suddenly bereaved people.


Road deaths and sustainable development

There is a pattern in the relationship between road deaths and a country’s income. At low income levels, there are few motor vehicles and casualties are very low. As the economy grows, so does the number of motor vehicles, and road casualties increase. We see a peak in road deaths in middle-income countries. As an economy becomes a high-income country, road deaths begin to decline again due to the introduction of road safety policies and investment in road safety infrastructure [11]. Many larger economies such as the UK saw a “tipping point” in the 1970s, when the rate of road deaths at last began to decline.

This led to an argument that the main factor for decreasing road deaths was growth of the economy [12]. However, this analysis has been shown to be incorrect. Researchers have shown that the decline in road deaths in the high-income countries since the 1970s was not down purely to economic growth, but rather the introduction of policies to improve road safety [13].

In short, policies and actions to improve the safety of roads globally are essential, and they can be implemented at different stages of economic growth: the earlier they are implemented the more lives can be saved. This is a position that has increasingly been recognised by organisations such as the WHO.

Learn more: Read the WHO and UN’s global plan for the Decade of Action for Road Safety, which sets out road safety policies being encouraged through the Decade.

Combating road deaths and injuries

Preventing casualties on the world’s roads requires a broad, multi-sector approach that encompasses engineering improvements (of roads and vehicles), comprehensive road traffic laws and enforcement of these, and education and awareness about using roads safely.

The design of roads and vehicles can have a huge impact on global road safety. Road design, and in particular keeping vulnerable road users separate and protected from traffic, is key to this [14].

One of the WHO’s aims is for countries to introduce comprehensive legislation on key topics: speed; drink driving; motorcycle helmet use; seat belts; and child restraints. Only 28 countries around the world, less than 7% of the world’s population, have comprehensive laws in place on these topics. As much of the UK has a blood alcohol level above that recommended by the WHO, it is not considered to have these comprehensive laws in place. The enforcement of road laws is also important.

With regard to education, an underlying problem has been that projects must reflect the local realities of the lives of road users. If, for example, a programme is introduced to improve children’s understanding of road safety, the content and methodologies must reflect local realities for those children [15]. However, there are also common principles and messages, and lessons that can be learnt between countries, about how best to educate and persuade road users – drivers in particular – on using roads as safely as possible.

Learn more: Read about Brake’s campaigns to improve road safety in the UK
Learn more: Read case studies of awareness-raising road safety events from around the world

[1] Global Status of Road Safety 2013, World Health Organisation, 2013

[2] Estimating global road fatalities, Transport Research Laboratory, 2000

[3] Global Status of Road Safety 2013, World Health Organisation, 2013

[4] Global Status of Road Safety 2013, World Health Organisation, 2013

[5] Global Status of Road Safety 2013, World Health Organisation, 2013

[6] Gender and road traffic injuries, World Health Organisation, 2002

[7] War on the roads: the public health community must intervene, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, 2002

[8] Transport for health: the global burden of disease from motorized road transport, Global Road Safety Facility, The World Bank Group, 2014

[9] Transport for health: the global burden of disease from motorized road transport, Global Road Safety Facility, The World Bank Group, 2014

[10] The burden of trauma in four rural district hospitals in Malawi: A retrospective review of medical records, Beit Cure Hospital, Blantyre, Malawi, 2014

[11] National road casualties and economic development, John Hopkins University, 2005

[12] Traffic fatalities and economy growth, The World Bank, 2003

[13] The turning point in the number of traffic fatalities: Two hypotheses about changes in underlying trends, Swedish Road and Transport Research Institute, 2014                                                                                                  

[14] Road deaths in developing countries: the challenge of dysfunctional roads, iRAP

[15] Where there's no green man: child road-safety education in Ethiopia, Oxfam, 2010

Updated Dec 2014

Tags: road deaths road crash serious injury