We learn a lot as kids, just incidentally, when riding around in the back seat of the family car. Probably people who learn to drive without those childhood experiences make mistakes that we would not. Today I had lunch with some friends from Burma — L, a man in his fifties and V, his daughter, age 25, who had recently passed her driving test. It wasn’t easy, she said. The first test was not successful, so she had tried again. This was understandable, since in Burma she had hardly ever been in a car.
I shuddered slightly, recalling a time forty years ago when the young minister of my church mentioned that he was teaching his Russian bride to drive. “She makes some ridiculous mistakes that you and I would never consider,” he had told me, “because she never had much familiarity with cars in Russia, even as a passenger.”
At lunch today I suggested mildly that the government should offer new immigrants free driving lessons; it would save lives. But my friends did not agree, so I dropped the subject. It had been tactless of me to propose it anyhow. A month ago L’s wife had died in a car crash, along with her sister and the sister’s baby. Four months before that, his wife’s brother-in-law also had been killed in a car crash. These people were all new immigrants, fresh from Burma, settling in a small North Carolina town. Though inexperienced behind the wheel, they had found jobs and needed to drive to get to work. What a loss!
How frequently do such tragedies occur on the roads? I did a little checking about the subject by Google tonight. Unfortunately, it seems that no one is compiling statistics to compare the driving records of immigrants to those of native-born Americans or Canadians. The only thing that came up excoriated the driving specifically of “ illegal aliens” — meaning undocumented Hispanics in the United States. There is a big political debate going on about how to handle the influx from Mexico, and this gave plenty of ammunition to the “get-tough” approach. Indeed, the facts were unsettling. According to one study, whereas 5 percent of the population of East Coast states is Hispanic “they are involved in 25% of the fatal traffic accidents.” A number of explanations are offered, including especially the acceptability in Latino culture of driving after heavy drinking. This paper was an eye-opener, to be sure, but focused too narrowly on Hispanics to answer my more general question.
Stymied, I had to search for international comparisons and here I found some surprising facts. According to the World Bank, about 800,000 people die on the world’s road each year. An additional 24 million are injured. The economic cost is about 1 percent of GDP in low income countries. It is the ninth leading cause of death today and the World Health Organization predicts that it will be the third leading cause of death worldwide in 2020, right after heart disease.
I learned a lot from a World Bank Power Point presentation, which included the chart shown above. Traffic fatalities occur mainly in countries where cars are not common. Those countries that are heavily motorized — notably in Western Europe and North America — have comparatively low rates of accidents, whereas Asia’s rates are shockingly high.
Moreover, in the affluent highly motorized countries, traffic fatalities per capita have been declining over the past several decades, even as the number of cars have increased in those places.
When the causes of motor crashes are investigated, by far the main blame has to be attributed to the driver, not flaws in the vehicle or in the road. Excess speed, alcohol consumption, and the youthfulness of the driver are the most common factors. Nevetheless, safety can be improved markedly by such physical measures as seat belts, speed bumps, and reflective strips on the backpacks of bicyclists.
If Asia is now the world’s leader in automotive fatalities, must we expect the situation there to become worse as every family acquires its own car? I am not sure of the answer. If, as I have reported, Canadian fatalities decrease while car ownership increases, will Chinese fatalities also decrease while car ownership increases there? I doubt it. One World Bank study sought to explain the decline in fatalities per vehicle kilometer traveled observed in high-income countries over recent decades. One reason is that pedestrian fatalities declined, but the main factors were the reduction in alcohol use, improved medical services, and a reduction in young drivers. But I would imagine that in Asia, as cars become more commonplace, the proportion of young drivers will increase, rather than decline as in Europe and North America. The World Bank proposes, accordingly, that the important policy to adopt is a system of driver education for youths and a reduction in speed limits in those countries where young people will constitute an increasing share of the driving population.
This is all very interesting but it doesn’t give any clear answer to my question about immigrants to North America. Nevertheless, I’m prepared to stick by my original proposal. Every death costs society. Many people immigrate to such countries as Canada or the United States from areas where cars are uncommon. Their lack of familiarity with common automotive practices makes them especially vulnerable. We should be offering them free driving lessons, just as all first-rate high schools offer drivers education to young people before they set out on the road.
How can we make this happen? I welcome your comments.