The Road Safety Divide


Two lanes of traffic waiting at traffic light.
Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash

In North America, improving road safety is a primary point of concern, as cities and countries try to reduce the number of traffic deaths that occur each year. In Toronto, where AlertDriving is based, the city launched Vision Zero in 2016, a “comprehensive action plan focused on reducing traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries on Toronto’s streets.” The goal is in the title – zero traffic deaths and injuries.


This plan isn’t unique to Toronto, or even North America. Cities and countries around the world have set similar goals for themselves, some with remarkable results. Sweden, the country that originated the concept of ‘Vision Zero,’ has seen a reduction by half in the number of traffic fatalities, from a number (7 per 100,000 inhabitants) that was small already.


Vision Zero is just one example of the global effort to reduce traffic fatalities, but its successes in different countries and cities is a good illustration of the inequality of road safety around the world.


According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Status Report on Road Safety in 2018, “there has been no reduction in the number of road traffic deaths in any low-income country since 2013.” This fact is startling, but ultimately it is indicative of the vast discrepancies in road safety around the world. While only 7 out of 100,000 Swedish residents will die in a road traffic incident, in low-income countries that number jumps to 27.5 out of 100,000.


The correlation between road traffic fatalities and the income level of a country is a strong one and is the reason why WHO focuses comparisons between high- and low-income countries. The risk of death in a road traffic incident is three times higher in low-income countries than in high-income countries, and:


“the burden of road traffic deaths is disproportionately high among low-and middle-income countries in relation to the size of their populations and the number of motor vehicles in circulation.”

One of the reasons that such a large discrepancy exists is infrastructure. In an article for The Economist about Sweden’s impressive Vision Zero record, the author points out that the existing infrastructure in Sweden amounts to a big head start over other countries: “Planning has played the biggest part in reducing accidents. Roads in Sweden are built with safety prioritised [sic] over speed or convenience.”


In stark contrast, infrastructure in other countries hasn’t always prioritized safety, and the results have been devastating. Another article for The Economist details the dire situation by describing, by example, the conditions on one stretch of road in Kenya:


“This stretch of road was upgraded in 2008 with funding from the European Union. But almost all of the $91m went on asphalt and almost none on safety… The road has no provision for overtaking or protection for pedestrians and casualties inundate local hospitals, with two or three a week coming to St Mary’s [hospital outside of Nairobi] from a 5km stretch alone.”

What this means is that not all countries are starting from the same place when it comes to road safety, and road hazards and traffic causes can vary from place to place depending on everything from the available infrastructure to the level of enforcement of traffic rules.


For more, check out WHO’s report on Road Safety and The Economist’s coverage.