Commentary / World

More people means more cars and more deaths

by Nathaniel Bullard

Bloomberg

More than 1.3 million people died in road-traffic accidents in 2016, an all-time high, according to the World Health Organization. A world with more people and more cars means more death on the world’s roads.

Those deaths, though, are not evenly distributed. “Road traffic injuries are now the leading killer of people aged 5-29 years,” notes the WHO’s new Global Status Report on Road Safety 2018. “The burden is disproportionately borne by pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, in particular those living in developing countries.”

There is nuance within those figures. While the total number of such deaths has risen, the death rate per 100,000 people has fallen slightly since 2000.

The change in safety on a per-vehicle basis is far more striking. The number of automobiles on the world’s roads rose from 850 million in 2000 to 2.1 billion in 2016. But the number of road-traffic deaths per vehicle fell by more than half, from 135 per 100,000 to 64 per 100,000.

Still, a slightly lower rate of road-traffic deaths per 100,000 people and a much lower rate of deaths per 100,000 vehicles is still resulting in more deaths every year. Road traffic might be the single biggest killer of people ages 5 to 29, but if we look deeper into the WHO’s data, that “biggest killer” status is even more astonishing.

Looking at the 15-29 age cohort, road-traffic deaths are 75 percent higher than deaths due to self-harm and 87 percent higher than deaths from interpersonal violence, and more than twice the number of deaths due to maternal conditions. If the world’s population of 15- to 29-year-olds is an ecosystem, then motor vehicles are its alpha predators.

Just as astonishing: Male road-traffic deaths far outnumber female deaths in every age cohort the WHO specifies, and for the 15-to-49 population, men make up 4 out of 5 road-traffic deaths.

Why are men predominantly the victims in road-traffic fatalities? Men are more likely than women to drive in many parts of the world, and they drive more miles than their female counterparts. Men are also more prone to engage in aggressive, potentially fatal risk-taking behaviors such as tailgating, cutting off other vehicles or even ramming other vehicles on purpose.

Road-traffic deaths have continued to increase as the human population increases. As Michael R. Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, notes in his foreword to the WHO’s report, “Road safety is an issue that does not receive anywhere near the attention it deserves — and it really is one of the great opportunities to save lives around the world.”

The Bloomberg Philanthropies Initiative for Global Road Safety has dedicated more than a quarter-billion dollars over the past 12 years to that opportunity. And there are glimmers of positive development in the WHO report: “Road-traffic deaths per 100,000 people have fallen slightly this century, and vehicles have become much safer. Turning the growing number of total deaths into a decline, however, will require much greater safety — for vehicles, for drivers and for pedestrians — in a future with more cars and more people.”

Nathaniel Bullard is a BloombergNEF energy analyst, covering technology and business-model innovation.

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