Silent ‘epidemic on wheels’ killing people

(ORDO NEWS) — The COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years has given mind-boggling statistics: half a billion cases, 6 million deaths, 1 million in the US alone. But another, less publicized global scourge preceded it and is likely to surpass it: road deaths and injuries.

About 1.35 million people die on the world’s roads every year, and another 20 to 50 million are seriously injured. Half of these deaths and many injuries are associated with pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists – the most vulnerable road and street users.

Around the world, every 25 seconds someone dies in a traffic accident. The head of the United Nations Road Safety Fund called road deaths and injuries a “silent epidemic on wheels”.

I have been studying cities and urban politics for many years, including transportation and road safety. In my opinion, making transport systems safer is quite real, and this is not rocket science.

The key is for governments to prioritize safer roads, speeds and vehicles, and to promote measures such as traffic calming, which are known to reduce the risk of traffic accidents.


It may seem hyperbole to talk about road deaths as the equivalent of pandemic diseases, but the numbers speak for themselves. Road deaths are now the leading cause of death for children and young people aged five to 29 worldwide, and the seventh leading cause of death overall in low-income countries.

Accidents cause serious economic damage to the victims and their families, as well as to society as a whole. A 2019 study estimated that between 2015 and 2030, road injuries will cost the global economy nearly $1.8 trillion.

Because death and injury rates are highest in low- and middle-income countries, dangerous roads add to the cost of poverty and are a major drag on economic growth. That is why one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is to halve the number of deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents in the world by 2030.

More deaths in low-income countries

Road traffic death rates vary greatly around the world. Road traffic death rates range from 27 per 100,000 in Africa to as little as seven per 100,000 in Europe.

Wealthier countries have had mass car traffic longer than low-income countries, so they have had more time to develop strategies and tactics to reduce accidents and deaths.

For example, in 1937 – in an era when death on the streets of cities like New York was considered an everyday part of metropolitan life – the death rate on US roads was 31 people per 100,000. This is about the same as today in the Democratic Republic Congo.

In lower-income countries, cars tend to be less safe, roads are worse, more vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists share urban space with cars, and lower medical care means that injury can easier to die. These countries also have less capacity to introduce or enforce traffic rules.

In higher income countries, traffic accidents often involve just one or two people. In low-income countries, accidents typically involve multiple passengers.

For example, in 2021 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 110 miles (180 km) from the capital Kinshasa, a fuel truck collided with an overcrowded bus, killing 33 people. Fatal traffic accidents often occur in the DRC, where the roads are bad, there are many unsafe old cars, many drivers are not properly trained, and drinking and driving are common.

For many middle-income countries, the problem is the very rapid growth of car traffic as the population becomes more urban and more people earn enough money to buy motorcycles and cars. Such rapid growth could exceed the capacity of urban roads.

Less regulation and more deaths in the US

There are also differences between richer countries. In 1994, Europe and the US had similar road death rates, but by 2020, Americans were three times more likely to die on the road than Europeans.

Today, the US kills 12 per 100,000 annually, while the Netherlands and Germany have four deaths per 100,000, and Norway only two per 100,000. This difference reflects more aggressive speed reduction programs in Europe, greater investment in mass transit and stricter anti-drinking measures.

The US is not just lagging behind other rich countries in road safety. In recent years, road deaths in the United States have increased. After a gradual decline over 50 years, the death toll hit a 16-year high in 2021 with almost 43,000 deaths. The number of pedestrian deaths reached a 40-year high of 7,500.

What caused such a surge in mortality? Roads were less congested during the COVID-19 lockdown, but proportionately more people engaged in riskier behavior, including speeding, drunk driving, distracted driving, and not using seat belts.

Road cyclist and pedestrian deaths were on the rise even before the pandemic, as cities encouraged walking and cycling without providing adequate infrastructure. Drawing a white line on a busy street cannot replace the creation of a fully protected dedicated bike path.

Two harmful beliefs about road safety

Two narratives often overshadow the discussion of road deaths. First, by calling these events “accidents” we are normalizing what I consider to be the killing of innocents. It’s part of the cult of the automobile and the dominance the US places on fast moving vehicles.

Automobility has created a special form of space – roads and highways – where death and injury are considered “accidents”. In my opinion, this is an extreme form of environmental injustice. Historically disadvantaged groups and poor communities are overrepresented in road traffic deaths and injuries.

The second misleading thesis is that almost all deaths and injuries on the roads are caused by human factors. Public officials routinely blame bad drivers, distracted pedestrians and aggressive cyclists for street deaths.

People really take too many risks. In recent years, the AAA’s annual Road Safety Culture Survey found that most drivers consider unsafe driving behavior, such as texting while driving or speeding on highways, to be extremely or very dangerous. However, a significant number of drivers still report that they behave in this way.

But, as urban studies expert David Zipper has pointed out, a persistent myth often cited by government agencies and the media claims that 94 percent of crashes in the US are the fault of individual drivers.

This inflated figure successfully shifts the blame to other factors such as vehicle design, road infrastructure, and the need for more effective public policy.

Governments have the tools

It seems to me that deaths and injuries on the roads are not accidents. These are incidents that can be prevented and reduced. To do this, governments and urban planners will have to rethink the concept of transport systems, not only in terms of speed and efficiency, but also in terms of safety and livability.

This means protecting motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians from vehicular traffic and reducing traffic speeds on city roads.

It will also require improved road design, enforcement of traffic rules that make roads safer, and more effective and feasible measures to encourage the use of safety equipment such as seat belts, child restraints and helmets for cyclists and motorcyclists.

Unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, making streets safer does not require new solutions to be developed in laboratories.

What is needed is the will to use tools that have already proven to be effective.


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