Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The new pandemic: road deaths

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Mon October 28, 2013
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
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT