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Death on the roads: WHO report

First publishedin ITS International
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Countries in south-east Asia have regional road traffic death rates (20.7 per 100,000 population) which are higher than the global rate | © Sutiponmm - Dreamstime.com
The latest figures from the World Health Organisation on road deaths make sobering reading – but they are particularly shocking when you consider how the relative poverty of countries contributes to high fatality rates, says Adam Hill

Around 1.35 million people died on the world’s roads in 2016, while road traffic injuries are now the leading cause of death among young people, according to new statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Perhaps the most sobering point from its latest research  – Global Status Report on Road Safety 2018 – is the staggering inequality of road deaths. Put simply, if you are not living in a developed nation then your likelihood of dying in a road-related incident is increased markedly: your chances are three times higher in low-income countries than in high-income countries.

It is worth taking a second to ponder that: just 1% of the world’s vehicles are in poorer countries, yet these countries are where 13% of all vehicle-related deaths happen. The richest countries account for 40% of the world’s cars – but only 7% of the total traffic fatalities. A staggering 90% of road traffic deaths occurs in what WHO designates as ‘low- and middle-income countries’.

Whichever way you spin it, the statistics are frightening: 1.35 million road deaths a year equates to almost 3,700 people killed per day (not to mention the tens of millions more who are injured, often with life-altering impact).

Rising deaths

There are a variety of reasons why this is happening, WHO suggests: rapid urbanisation, low safety standards, intermittent enforcement and lack of seat-belts or helmets. Plus, of course, those old favourites: drug- and drink-driving, distraction and tiredness.

Predictably perhaps, vulnerable road users (VRUs) such as pedestrians and cyclists account for 26% of all road traffic deaths – but that rises to 36% in the eastern Mediterranean and 44% in Africa. Motorcycle riders and passengers account for 28% of all road traffic deaths – but, again, that rises in different areas: 36% in the western Pacific and 43% in south-east Asia, for example.

The young are also bearing the brunt of this: road traffic injury is the leading cause of death for people aged between five to 29 years old. It is also the eighth leading cause overall – which is grimly impressive given that the deadly impact of road accidents outstrips deaths from mass killers such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

In the countries or territories where progress has been made, better legislation is the key: speeding, drinking and driving, failing to use seat-belts, motorcycle helmets and child restraints are all important areas for policy makers to take into account.

ITS can help, of course, with initiatives such as better-designed roads, motorbike lanes or completely demarcated lanes for cyclists – not to mention moves to make intersections safer.

And despite everything, it is not all bad news: WHO reckons the rate of deaths has stabilised relative to the size of the world’s population in recent years. While the number of vehicles worldwide has steadily increased, death rates have actually declined – from 135 deaths for every 100,000 vehicles in 2000, to 64 per 100,000 in 2016. This is progress – but not quick enough “to compensate for rapid population growth and increasing motorisation worldwide”.

Road deaths by numbers

• 1.35 million people died on the roads in 2016
• Road traffic injury is the leading cause of death for people aged five to 29 years old
• Poorer countries have 1% of the world’s vehicles - but 13% of all vehicle-related deaths
• Richer countries have 40% of the world’s cars – but only 7% of total traffic fatalities
• In all, 90% of road traffic deaths occur in poorer countries
• Only 40 countries have implemented at least seven - or all eight – of the United Nations’ vehicle safety standards

Source: World Health Organisation

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The World Health Organisation Global Status Report on Road Safety 2018 makes sobering reading | © Cateyeperspective Dreamstime.com
The numbers are still appalling – and the progress is also not uniform. Safety measures have contributed to reductions in road traffic deaths in 48 middle- and high-income countries. Three regions of the world - Americas, Europe and the western Pacific - have reported a decline in road traffic death rates.

But not one low-income country has demonstrated a reduction in overall deaths, the report finds. Across Africa there are 26.6 deaths per 100,000 of the population – a stark contrast with the continent of Europe (9.3 per 100,000) and the Americas (15.6 per 100,000).

Goals missed

At this rate, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal target – set in 2015 - to halve road traffic deaths by 2020 will not be met. “This report shows that three years on, far too little progress has been made towards this goal,” says WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “There is an urgent need to scale up evidence-based interventions and investment.”

And still…that extraordinary disparity in safety between richer and poorer nations exists.

Ghebreyesus says: “Road traffic crashes are not ‘accidents’. They are completely preventable… Development is an opportunity for low- and middle-income countries to avoid the costly mistakes made in the past by high-income countries. We need to create cities and transport systems that reduce reliance on cars. We must apply the lessons we have learned about safe road design. With the right leadership and investment, countries can build in the safeguards and best practices to save lives.”

WHO emphasises that ‘proven solutions’ are available. Michael Bloomberg, CEO of Bloomberg Philanthropies (which funded the report) and a WHO ambassador, says: “We know which interventions work. Strong policies and enforcement, smart road design and powerful public awareness campaigns can save millions of lives over the coming decades.”

Vehicle safety regulation is another area in which progress has been made. The United Nations has eight priority vehicle standards, including the inclusion of child restraints, pedestrian front protection and anti-lock braking systems for motorbikes. But only 40 (mainly richer) countries have introduced ‘seven or eight’ of them – and 124 countries apply just one of them, or none at all. Yet there is some movement: since WHO’s last review of road safety, India is applying the front and side impact protection standard, while Malaysia started applying the electronic stability control regulation last year.

Urgent need

Despite this, the report says there is an “urgent need for governments to scale up their road safety efforts in order to live up to their commitments made in the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030.”

The third Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety will be held in Sweden in February 2020: it will be a very good time to take stock of what has been achieved – and the great deal that there is yet to be done.

“These deaths are an unacceptable price to pay for mobility,” concludes Ghebreyesus. “There is no excuse for inaction. This is a problem with proven solutions. This report is a call for governments and partners to take much greater action to implement these measures.”

Road safety: some good news

Since the last WHO report in 2015, 22 more countries amended their laws on one or more risk factors, covering an additional one billion people. A number of states now have laws which align with best practice in some vital safety areas: 46 countries (covering three billion people) on setting speed limits; 45 countries (2.3 billion people) on drink-driving; 49 countries (2.7 billion people) on motorcycle helmet use; and 105 countries (5.3 billion people) on seat-belt use. However, it’s not all positive: “Less progress has been made on adopting best practice on speed limits, despite the importance of speed as a major cause of death and serious injury,” says WHO.

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