An Epidemic on Wheels

By Norman Y. Mineta
Monday, March 31, 2008

A few years ago, I led a U.S. delegation to Bangkok for a high-level meeting on aviation safety. At the end of the meeting, the Thai transportation minister brought up an issue that had not been on our agenda.

"What I really need to talk with you about is road safety," he said. "This is such a huge problem for us."

Last year, 965 people lost their lives in air crashes around the world. But more than 3,000 people will die on the world's highways today. More than 1.2 million people die each year from road traffic injuries, a toll comparable to the number of people killed by malaria or tuberculosis. For every death there are at least 20 serious injuries. This is an epidemic in every sense of the word.

Yet it is a hidden epidemic. It doesn't make the news because these deaths occur one or two at a time; because nine out of 10 fatalities occur in the developing world; and because in many countries we don't have accurate statistics to measure the problem. But mostly it doesn't make the news because we are numbed by a sense of fatalism, by a feeling that these are just accidents, unpredictable and unpreventable; we see them as a fact of life, an accepted side effect of our modern mobility.

As a result, highway safety rarely appears on the agendas of international meetings. As I learned in Thailand, many governments and public authorities in the developing world are desperate for assistance to deal with rapidly rising death tolls on their roads, but they find little organized response.

This can begin to change. The U.N. General Assembly is set to vote today on a plan to hold the first-ever global ministerial conference on road safety. If approved, it will be a major step toward raising the political profile of this epidemic and providing the action needed by governments worldwide to reduce traffic-related deaths and injuries.

There is no time to lose. Without sustained action, road deaths in some developing countries, such as India, are projected to climb through the middle of the century. It took the United States about 40 years to reverse a trend of increasing traffic deaths. It took time for us to build safer roads and require safer cars, and for safer behavior to evolve on the part of drivers and other road users. We are still losing 43,000 lives in the United States every year, but we have learned many painful lessons.

The best-performing nations in terms of highway safety, such as Sweden, the Netherlands and Australia, are adopting a "safe systems" approach that is similar to the philosophy governing aviation safety. These nations are showing that road deaths are preventable through sustained political commitment to the use of seat belts and motorcycle helmets, to curbing speeding and drunk driving, and to investment in safer road and vehicle designs. It is an approach that can be applied in any country, rich or poor.

We must share what we have learned. The gap in road safety between developed countries and transitional countries is widening. If current trends continue and we leave developing nations to turn this around by themselves, as many as 100 million lives worldwide could be lost to road injuries before this epidemic begins to reverse course. Countries struggling to meet the U.N. Millennium Development Goals cannot afford the losses in human and economic potential that these deaths represent, especially when the means to stop this disaster are at hand.

So today, at the United Nations and in U.S. policy, we face a fork in the road. We have a choice between accepting that there could be 100 million deaths in the coming decades, or resolving to work together to prevent them and make our roads safe.

Norman Y. Mineta, who was commerce secretary from 2000 to 2001 and transportation secretary from 2001 to 2006, is honorary chairman of Make Roads Safe -- The Campaign for Global Road Safety in North America.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company