People who live in wealthy countries tend to own cars and use them often. Their cities are more spread out than those in poorer countries, and they have places to go—cinemas, restaurants, violin lessons for their children. In the poorest countries, many people live miles from a paved road, and even a bicycle is a status symbol. So you might expect that road death rates would be highest in the rich world. The opposite is the case. With a few striking exceptions, the proportion of people who are killed on the roads each year is lowest in the wealthiest countries.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an American academic institute, has estimated road-death rates for every country. Some countries, like America, have good data. Others, like Somalia, do not, so the academics rely on proxy indicators and what are known as “verbal autopsies”—asking how people died. The poorest, most chaotic countries remain mysterious. Not shown on the chart is the Central African Republic, which is thought to have an annual road death rate of 76 per 100,000—higher than anywhere else. The researchers are 95% confident that the true figure is between 43 and 99 per 100,000.
The data suggest that, below a certain level of income, there is not much correlation with death rates. Some upper-middle-income countries, like the Dominican Republic and Thailand, seem to have deadlier roads than much poorer places such as Liberia. Sometimes that is because of the popularity of motorbikes—and the unpopularity of motorbike helmets. But when countries reach a GDP per head (at purchasing-power parity) of about $30,000, death rates usually start to come down. Countries above that level tend to have carefully engineered roads, diligent police, well-maintained cars and not many teenagers.
The big exceptions to this pattern are Arab countries such as Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Though wealthy, they have high death rates. Officials in those countries sometimes suggest that mobile phones and wandering camels are to blame. It is more likely that their roads are deadly because people drive too fast. Oman is experimenting with “zero tolerance” speed cameras—previously, cameras would only flash at vehicles travelling more than 15km (9 miles) per hour over the speed limit. The death rate is already coming down.
This article is from our Graphic detail section.