Poverty as an accident risk

Poor people run a greater risk of dying in a road traffic accident. Jörg Kubitzki of the Allianz Center for Technology examined why that's the case.
Traffic jam with rickshaws, motorbikes, and vans on busy city street in Delhi, India\r\n/ Credits: Paul Prescott /
Portrait of Jörg Kubitzki Jörg Kubitzki of the Allianz Center for Technology The lower the per capita income of a country, the greater the risk its citizens run of dying in a road traffic accident. That’s what statistics from the World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO) clearly indicate. In the latest Allianz Risk Pulse Jörg Kubitzki of the Allianz Center for Technology examines why this is the case.

Though Africa has just two percent of the vehicles registered in the world, it accounts for nearly 20 percent of all deaths from road accidents. By contrast, wealthier countries, in which more than half of all vehicles are registered, account for just 8.5 percent of traffic deaths. Why such a disparity? Are Africans really such bad drivers?

In an article published in the latest edition of Allianz Risk Pulse Jörg Kubitzki of the Allianz Center for Technology examines the close connection between traffic safety and wealth in a society. According to Kubitzki, per capita income is a key factor in determining the likelihood of dying in a road traffic accident. Globally, traffic accidents claim more than 1.2 million lives every year. However, the rate of road fatalities is twice as high in low-income countries than in wealthier ones. The number of pedestrians and moped drivers killed is also disproportionately high in poorer countries.

Kubitzki identifies several reasons for this discrepancy: ailing infrastructures, the poor state of repair of many vehicles, an unsatisfactory safety culture in many poor countries, a lack of road safety education and lax licensing practices. The safety of road users also depends on everyone’s compliance with the rules and the imposition of sanctions for violators, says Kubitzki. “An awareness of laws and safety on the part of the state and society is a prerequisite for traffic safety.” But in many countries that’s precisely where the problem lies.

For this reason economic growth doesn’t necessarily translate into fewer traffic victims, as trends in industrial nations have shown. During the boom years of the 1960s in former West Germany, for instance, the number of road accidents increased because safety structures failed to keep pace with technical developments and mobility needs. Since then traffic safety in Germany has been improved by a plethora of measures, for example the compulsory use of seat belts and helmets, traffic safety education in schools and improved driver’s licensing procedures and regulations.
Chart showing global rate of road deaths per 100,000 inhabitants by income class Global rate of road deaths per 100,000 inhabitants by income class Currently, there is little sign of a similar trend in threshold and developing countries. The World Bank fears that the number of traffic deaths will increase significantly – at least temporarily – in developing regions due to rapidly growing mobility. It predicts that by 2020 the number of vehicles will increase by a factor of one and a half in India and by a factor of two in China.

More money spent on vehicle safety and expansion of the road network alone won’t solve the problem, says Kubitzki. “Mobility is more than the sum of a country’s vehicles, traffic performance, driver’s licenses and safety measures,” says the traffic psychologist in Allianz Risk Pulse. “Mobility is a social process.”

Kubitzki therefore believes that improved road safety depends crucially on the political will to create rigorous legal and organizational structures and to enact and enforce rules. “Traffic safety is a product of operational safety and legal compliance and not least a willingness to recognize overriding legal principles,” says the safety expert. In many countries this concept has yet to take hold.

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