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China, India, and the Road Death-GDP Correlation

The New York Times notes:

India overtook China to top the world in road fatalities in 2006 and has continued to pull steadily ahead, despite a heavily agrarian population, fewer people than China and far fewer cars than many Western countries.

It goes on to cite a few reasons:

A lethal brew of poor road planning, inadequate law enforcement, a surge in trucks and cars, and a flood of untrained drivers have made India the world’s road death capital. As the country’s fast-growing economy and huge population raise its importance on the world stage, the rising toll is a reminder that the government still struggles to keep its more than a billion people safe.

In China, by contrast, which has undergone an auto boom of its own, official figures for road deaths have been falling for much of the past decade, to 73,500 in 2008, as new highways segregate cars from pedestrians, tractors and other slow-moving traffic, and the government cracks down on drunken driving and other violations.

As R.J. Smeed first noted, having fewer cars is by no means an indicator that one will have fewer traffic fatalities (and an important distinction in the developing world is that traffic fatality categories are topped by pedestrian deaths). But one thing that goes unmentioned in the piece is research, cited in Traffic, by Elizabeth Kopits and Maureen Cropper, that links a nation’s rate of traffic fatalities to its GDP. When GDP climbed from $1200 to $4400 in the countries studied, the fatality rate dropped by a factor of three.

According to the CIA Factbook, the 2009 estimated GDP of China was $6600, while in India it was $3100. Just by this measure alone, the discrepancy between the two countries could be predicted, if not fully explained (for there would be many other factors at play here, like culture, governmental structure, etc.). It’s not hard to imagine why higher GDP would lead to fewer deaths (in this regard it’s not properly correct to call traffic deaths, as is often done, a “disease of affluence”); as development levels increase, there’s not only more money for engineering, enforcement, etc., but also a reduced likelihood of corruption (roads are built to standards, police less willing to take bribes), accompanied by a greater societal emphasis in safety in all kinds of areas of life. But the real question is how India can close the huge fatality gap with China even if it can’t immediately narrow the GDP gap.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 9th, 2010 at 7:52 am and is filed under Cars, Cities, Traffic Engineering, Traffic safety, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “China, India, and the Road Death-GDP Correlation”

  1. Thomas Says:

    You keep saying GDP, but I think that you mean Per-Capita Income.

    Gross Domestic Product is the total value of all goods and services produced by a country in a given year. China’s is in the trillions of dollars.

    Per-Capita Income is GNP divided by population.

  2. Jim Says:

    You mean GDP per capita, right? Dividing a total GDP of $6600 up between a billion Chinese would be fairly tricky :)

  3. Jason Says:

    It’s a traffic Kuznets curve!

    Kuznets invented his curve to plot equality against development. (As a country develops, he theorises, inequality increases and subsequently decreases).

    There’s also an environmental Kuznets curve that explains why you have blue skies over Liberia and Vancouver but not over Beijing.

    No doubt many variables (can be made to) fit the curve…

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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