Report: Pedestrians and Cyclists Account for Almost Half of Traffic Deaths

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Nearly half of the 1.2 million people killed in traffic accidents around the world each year are not in cars. They are on motorcycles and bicycles or walking along roadsides.

That finding, released in a report yesterday, may help explain why 90 percent of the world's traffic fatalities occur in a group of countries that together have fewer than half of the world's cars.

The country-by-country survey of traffic injuries and deaths was published by the World Health Organization. Its 287-page report focuses on an overlooked problem in public health, and it gives a sense of where 178 countries stand in their use of such safety measures as speed limits, helmet laws and blood alcohol restrictions.

Traffic accidents were the 10th-leading cause of death in the world in 2004, behind lung cancer and ahead of diabetes, and they are on track to become the fifth-leading cause by 2030.

Five years ago, the United Nations agency published a report that presented the evidence for the usefulness of legal, medical and road-engineering interventions, such as speed bumps, to prevent accidents or reduce fatalities. The agency did not know how widely the strategies were used.

The data were gathered last year from transportation, health and police officials from around the world, who met under WHO auspices to pool information and answer a questionnaire.

One of the more surprising discoveries was the toll on pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcycle riders crowding the roads in developing countries, who accounted for 46 percent of all traffic deaths.

High-income countries, such as the United States and most of the nations in Europe, have about 52 percent of registered cars but only 8.5 percent of traffic deaths. For low-income countries, including most of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, the statistics are nearly reversed. They have 9 percent of the world's cars but almost 42 percent of the traffic deaths.

Until the current recession, auto sales in some developing countries were increasing by more than 10 percent a year. The authors hope the report will help stimulate governments and engineers to design roads that can accommodate a huge influx of cars but also out-of-car users.

The report identified five risk factors for injury on the road, each of which can be lessened by well-enforced laws: speed, drunken driving, helmets, seat belts and child restraints.

Only 48 percent of countries have laws addressing all five risk factors, and only 15 percent have laws that, in the authors' views, address them optimally.

The money to gather the data and produce the report was provided by the Bloomberg Philanthropies, which is funded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the founder of Bloomberg News. The charity has made tobacco control and traffic deaths focuses of its $384 million global health program.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company