Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The new pandemic: road deaths

By John D. Sutter, CNN
October 28, 2013 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
China's roads kill more people per year than those in any other country, according to the World Health Organization.
China's roads kill more people per year than those in any other country, according to the World Health Organization.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Roads kill 1.24 million people per year, according to the WHO
  • A new project highlights the deaths as part of a public health "pandemic"
  • John Sutter: It's time for the world to address this crisis
  • He asks readers to share stories about bad roads and laws in their countries

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and head of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com.

(CNN) -- Here's a big idea that needs to sink in quickly: Car crashes and motorcycle accidents are symptoms of a disease, and it's high time we started looking at killer roads as a public health crisis -- or "pandemic," as the Pulitzer Center put it recently.

We think of HIV/AIDS and malaria as the big bad killer illnesses. They are among them, of course. But they've also got the advantage of having the world's attention.

Meanwhile, as the developing world continues to build more roads and buy more cars, road traffic deaths have emerged as a new and growing crisis -- one that's a threat to global public health.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

"In the developing world, in a very short time, (road deaths) are going to leapfrog past all of these more famous diseases and will be the No. 5 killer in the developing world," said Tom Hundley, a senior editor at the Pulitzer Center, which launched an extensive project in August called "Roads Kill." That switch will happen, according to World Health Organization data, because malaria and HIV/AIDS are becoming less likely to kill a person, while deaths from road traffic accidents are expected to increase in coming decades.

The ongoing Pulitzer project highlights sobering facts: Roads kill 1.24 million people each year, and by 2030, that annual number is expected to jump to 3.6 million. Sometimes laws are the problem. For instance, Nigeria only recently started requiring new drivers to pass tests. More often, it seems, enforcement is a culprit. South Africa requires seat belts for front and back seat passengers, the center reports. But it got a rating of only 1 on a scale of 1 to 10 for enforcement, with 10 being the best. Meanwhile, front seat passengers who wear seat belts reduce their risk of dying in a crash by 40% to 50%, according to the World Health Organization.

The Dominican Republic has just about the highest number of road traffic deaths per capita, according to the World Health Organization. "Travel at night on intercity highways and in rural areas should be avoided, due to animals on the road, poor road conditions, poor lane markers, missing manhole covers, large potholes, unmarked speed bumps, and other vehicles being driven at excessive speeds, often with malfunctioning headlights or taillights," the U.S. State Department says on its website for travelers to the Dominican Republic. "Drivers should be aware that road hazards and closures are often indicated by piles of debris littered across the roadway, without any lettered signs or reflective surfaces to help call attention to the road condition. Often times, there is no indication of the road hazard whatsoever."

China has the highest total number of road deaths.

In many developing countries, Hundley told me, traffic cops are on foot -- meaning they can't chase down speeding cars. "You could run a red light or speed with impunity," he said. Motorcycles in Southeast Asia often carry entire families. That's got to create balance issues, and not everyone wears a helmet. "A lot of these countries have helmet laws -- so the driver wears a helmet," he said, "but his wife and two children don't."

Saddest of all is that, like many other killers, unsafe roads primarily are victimizing people in poorer countries. Income inequality factors in, too. "If you're the rich guy in an SUV and you hit a child on a bicycle, you just take off" in some countries with weak law enforcement, Hundley said. "Or you pay a small fine."

If road deaths are part of a disease, we know the cure. Countries like the United States and Australia have greatly lowered their rates of road deaths, in part with smart safety laws and levels of traffic enforcement that don't exist in some other nations. Australia used to be a country of "reckless drivers," the Pulitzer Center writes. "But strict enforcement of safe driving laws resulted in an 80% decline in road fatalities" over several decades.

In the United States, the rate of road deaths per 100,000 people was 15.64 in 1994, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That rate had declined to 10.39 by 2011.

One of the most interesting things about the Pulitzer project is it has kickstarted conversations about road safety all over the world. Dan McCarey, a Web developer at the Pulitzer Center, told me people from Venezuela to South Africa have been talking about it.

"It was big in Iran for a couple days," he said.

These conversations need to happen, in part because of the increasing death toll, but also because solutions are relatively simple, especially compared to more stubborn global health problems like malaria, which also is a worthy issue.

Road deaths should roll onto the global radar.

That's where you come in. Everyone has a story about a dangerous road in the town or a traffic law they'd love to see changed. Take a look at the Pulitzer report -- it has a map where you can look up your country -- and tweet about what you want to change, or what you've experienced on the roads in the place where you live.

The group suggests using the hashtag #roadskill.

I'll do the same. I may tweet about how I've been on buses in Madagascar that turn their lights off at night because they think they're saving gas. Or about the driver in Atlanta who ran into me while I was biking because he didn't yield on a left turn.

No one anecdote will solve this problem, but the more we talk about it the closer we'll get.

And if Twitter isn't your thing, I'd love to hear your road stories in the comments section below.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT