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.