17 September 2014

Richer, yet not safer

The Statesman

17 Sep 2014

Increased road fatalities in India have garnered a lot of attention in recent times, especially after the tragic death of a senior politician in a car crash at the heart of the Indian capital within days of being sworn in as a Union Minister. The high number of road fatalities in countries like India and China is justifiably of concern. However, a higher absolute number of fatalities in China and India is not unexpected, given their large populations, which place many more people at risk of accidents. According to data published by the World Health Organization (WHO), the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) account for a much larger share of worldwide road fatalities than the more developed and industrialized Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries ~ 48 per cent versus 9 per cent, with BRICS also accounting for a much larger share of the global population ~ 44 versus 18 per cent. Not surprisingly, the BRICS nations also have a smaller share of total registered vehicles in the world ~ 28 per cent, in contrast to nearly half (49 per cent) of the registered vehicles being in the richer OECD bloc.

A more useful and reliable metric than the absolute number or share of fatalities is the rate of fatalities per 100,000 people, since it takes the contribution of relative size of the population into account, or helps in leaving population-size out of the picture in such comparisons. Using such a robust metric, the BRICS still end up with a much higher rate of fatalities ~ 22.5 per 100,000 versus 7.4 in the OECD countries. These aggregated data would therefore seem to suggest an inevitability of higher incidence of fatalities in the relatively poorer countries, together with lower fatalities in the developed and richer countries that have higher vehicle ownership as well as better transportation facilities. It is almost as if more wealth is also associated with safer roads. Such a sweeping generalization can however mask important details and complexities in individual country-level data. Also, it is important to ask ~ what roles can public policy and regulation play in curbing traffic fatalities?

To probe deeper into the pattern identified above, we look at the relationship between fatalities per 100,000 and the number of registered vehicles per 100,000 for a handful of countries. Specifically, we look at this relationship for the three largest countries in BRICS ~ China, India, and Brazil ~ that account for more than 90 per cent of the BRICS population, as well as for the three largest OECD countries ~ USA, Japan, and Mexico ~ that account for close to half of the OECD population.

For the three largest BRICS countries, an increase in per capita income and the number of registered vehicles per 100,000 moving from India to China to Brazil is actually accompanied by a simultaneous increase in fatalities per 100,000, instead of the expected decrease suggested by the broad pattern across the two groups of countries (Panel A). In other words, greater prosperity, that is, higher per capita income, and an increase in the number of registered vehicles on the road are associated with a greater risk of dying from traffic accidents in China and Brazil, compared to that in India. Hence, the experience of the three largest BRICS countries runs counter to the broad pattern in the data identified above.

The observed pattern for the three largest OECD countries is somewhat different, although not too encouraging. First, Mexico’s rate of fatalities ~ although expectedly lower than the BRICS ~ is not too far behind that of India’s (Panel B). This is in spite of far higher income and registered vehicles per capita in Mexico compared to that in India. Among these three, the only country that emerges with a really low rate of fatalities is Japan. Compared to Mexico, a close to threefold increase in vehicles per capita and about a fourfold increase in per capita income in Japan is accompanied by a steep lowering of the rate of fatalities to nearly a third. However, Japan seems to be truly an exception in this regard, since the United States with even higher income and vehicles per capita experiences a doubling of the rate of fatalities relative to Japan.

Although limited in scope, these data do offer some important takeaways. First, it should be obvious that economic growth and greater prosperity in and of themselves confer no automatic benefits in terms of lowering the rate of traffic fatalities, just as growth does not guarantee broad-based human development. Of course, growth and prosperity can offer greater flexibility or legroom by both generating and freeing up more resources that can be devoted to improving road safety. But ultimately it is up to the policymakers to put in place appropriate policies and programmes that encourage safer driving practices, punish traffic transgressions and safety violations on a systematic basis, and create an improved transportation infrastructure.
Second, although Japan’s success in controlling its rate of fatalities could partially be due to demographic change ~ including an ageing population ~ our preferred metric of fatalities per 100,000 should be relatively immune to the decline in Japan’s population, even if that helps lower the absolute number of fatalities. Also, there is evidence of success in policy initiatives as well as infrastructure investments contributing to a low rate of fatalities in Japan. Examples include the implementation of tougher laws targeting alcohol-impaired driving, the existence of an efficient and safe public transportation infrastructure, and superior standards for crash-testing that lead to safer vehicles and a lower risk of fatalities in the event of an accident.

The conscious and deliberate crafting and implementation of policies can go a long way towards improving road safety. For example, seat-belt laws are estimated to save thousands of lives in the US every year. Equally important is an efficient and reliable public transportation network, especially with rising incomes and greater vehicle ownership that put ever-increasing pressure on India’s roads. However, the political will to actually bring about change, and equally important, not let political expediency stand in the way of implementing tougher laws will be critical determinants of success. In spite of its differing demographics, Japan offers useful lessons in the policy and infrastructure spheres.

The writer is a Senior Researcher with Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, New Jersey. The views expressed in this article are his own and not those of Mathematica or any of its affiliates

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