Image: Road hazards
Andy Wong  /  AP
“There’s a silent epidemic going on,” says Bella Dinh-Zarr, North American director Make Roads Safe. “People prepare for all kinds of things when they travel — what they’ll eat, what they’ll drink — but [road safety] is this hidden danger they don’t often think of.”
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/28/2007 10:02:48 AM ET 2007-08-28T14:02:48

Last week in this space, I recounted how fortunate I was to have had so many memorable experiences on the roads and highways of foreign countries.

This week, I’m thinking that maybe I was just plain lucky.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 1.2 million people are killed in traffic-related crashes each year, which means it’s possible that 23,000 others have died in the last seven days.

That’s merely an approximation, of course, but it’s pretty sobering nonetheless. And for those of us who like to explore foreign countries by bus, taxi and rental car, it’s downright scary.

Risk factors on the rise
“There’s a silent epidemic going on,” says Bella Dinh-Zarr, North American director for Make Roads Safe, a global road-safety advocacy group. “People prepare for all kinds of things when they travel — what they’ll eat, what they’ll drink — but [road safety] is this hidden danger they don’t often think of.”

In fact, road crashes are now the world’s 10th leading cause of death — and moving up. By the year 2020, traffic accidents are expected to kill 2.34 million people, making them the sixth leading cause of death in the world. The prognosis is even worse in developing nations: According to the WHO report, road traffic deaths are expected to increase on average by more than 80 percent in low- and middle-income countries (compared to a 30-percent decline in high-income nations).

“There’s been a huge increase in motorization in developing nations,” says Cathy Silberman, executive director of the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), in Potomac, Md., “but not in the level of driver training.” Meanwhile, notes Dinh-Zarr, “governments push road building but not necessarily safe road building.”

At the same, we, as travelers, are venturing farther afield. We’ve been to Canada and the Caribbean and the capitals of Europe (well, some anyway), and we’re always looking for “the next big thing.” Nicaragua is the new Costa Rica. Bhutan is what Nepal was. Suffice it to say that the farther you go, the rougher the roads, the newer the drivers and, more often than not, the wilder the ride.

The result is a perfect storm of more cars, more roads and more drivers who may or may not be familiar with how the two go together. “El mundo es un pañuelo,” says Dinh-Zarr, quoting a popular Latin American saying. Literally, the phrase translates into “the world is a handkerchief,” but it really means that it’s a small world after all. And there are more of us sharing its roads all the time.

Forewarned is forearmed
The problem, suggests Silberman, is that we don’t all share the same “road culture.” In the U.S., we drive on the right. In the U.K., they drive on the left. In Morocco, drivers flash their lights to indicate you should yield to them; in Egypt, they don’t use them at all at night under the (mistaken) belief that turning them on will drain their batteries. Check out the Road Wise list on the ASIRT Web site and you’ll get a glimpse of the stunning (i.e., stupefying) diversity of driving styles in more than two dozen countries.

Fortunately, there are efforts underway to bridge the road-culture gap. Formed in 2006, the International Road Assessment Programme (iRAP) targets high-risk roads around the world with an arsenal of expertise gleaned in the industrialized world. In Chile and Costa Rica, for example, U.S. experts and local authorities are working together to assess the national highway network, develop affordable safety measures and, perhaps, cut down on the mayhem.

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In the meantime, forewarned is forearmed. The State Department maintains an online library on overseas road safety that includes general tips and dozens of links. Consular Information Sheets for individual countries provide insights on road conditions and traffic safety in countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

For even more detailed information, ASIRT offers regularly updated Road Reports for approximately 150 countries. Available via e-mail or download (fees may apply), each multi-page report covers general road conditions, local driving style, and the realities of dealing with the police, public transportation and emergency situations. Other useful features include capsule summaries of especially dangerous roads and phonetic translations for use in unsafe or emergency situations.

Specific destination aside, let common sense be your guide. If you’re renting a car, make sure it’s equipped with appropriate safety features, and check the tires, headlights and wipers before you leave the lot. If you’re using commercial transportation, avoid taxis without seatbelts and overweight or top-heavy buses, and speak up any time you feel you’re at risk. Avoid alcohol, think twice about driving at night and never assume the locals drive like the folks back home.

Be aware of your surroundings, says Silberman, and you’ll probably be fine: “Enjoy your travels, see the world, but be prepared. Safe choices can save your life.”

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