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The Good News
About Bad Drivers

The intersection of traffic deaths and economic development.

12:00 AM, Jul 19, 2007 • By DANIEL ALLOTT
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THE PEOPLE of the Democratic Republic of Georgia are known for several things: their sunny hospitality, their remarkable longevity and, most strikingly for first time visitors, their atrocious driving. On a recent trip to Tbilisi (Georgia's capital), I discovered what such terrible driving portends for a nation at an economic crossroads.

Speeding past Freedom Square and down Rustavelli Avenue (where the Rose Revolution commenced in 2003 with thousands of protestors storming parliament to oust Georgia's corrupt president), one is immediately struck by the sheer volume of people on the streets.

There are old ladies pushing baby strollers while dodging 20-ton cement trucks barreling down the dusty pavement at 60 mph. There are panhandlers for whom a closed window and accelerating engine proved no deterrent. And there seem to be an inordinate number of pedestrians on crutches or with casts on their arms, victims, perhaps, of Georgians' kamikaze manner of driving.

But there is also robust economic development. Fueled by five years of growth rates approaching 10 percent, Tbilisi has seen a construction boom that city government officials say yielded over 1.6 billion Lari (nearly $1 billion) in 2006. That's an increase of 400 percent in just five years for the more than 30 construction companies operating in Tbilisi.

Could there be a connection? What, if anything, might a nation's drivers reveal about its level of economic development?

Generally, as countries develop, the overall death rate falls. Death rates due to traffic accidents, however, are a notable exception. Instead, as per capita income rises, so does the number of motor vehicles--and hence the number of deaths from motor vehicle accidents. Further, the motor vehicle fatality rate (that's the number of deaths per 1000 vehicles) increases as countries begin to grow.

But as incomes continue to rise, fatality rates eventually peak, and then begin to decline, falling precipitously as countries dash toward first-world status. According to researchers at the World Bank, the per capita income where traffic fatalities peak is approximately $8,600 in 1985 U.S. dollars.

This eventual decline comes as public and private actions are introduced that address the challenges of increased motorization. Some of these actions include safer vehicles, road safety awareness campaigns, legislation (compulsory seatbelt laws, for example), driver training, and better road engineering and measures to separate pedestrians from vehicular traffic (such as crosswalks and underground walkways).

Then there's this simple reality: People with more to lose tend to be more risk-averse on the roadways. What this means is that, as they grow, developing countries can expect to suffer through a period of rising vehicle fatalities, but only until they reach a certain level of per capita income, at which point further increases in income are accompanied by a falling rate of traffic fatalities.

But that's not all. Economists at Florida Atlantic University have found a tight link between a country's income distribution and its vehicle fatality rate. Specifically, countries characterized by high income disparity suffer higher rates of vehicle fatalities because their income-diverse population segments enter the roadways in very different ways.

Take China, where a booming economy has added 5 million new cars to the roadways each of the last few years. As millions of novice Chinese drivers learn to negotiate China's still-developing roadways, they must compete with the more than 600 million bikes that flood China's streets. This helps explain the doubling of deaths on China's roads last year alone. China's streets are so dangerous, in fact, that 680 Chinese die and 45,000 are injured on them every day, according to the World Health Organization.

These studies illuminate why developing nations account for only 40 percent of the world's motor vehicles, yet 85 percent of its vehicle fatalities.

The good news is that if historical trends hold, the horrific traffic problems that are the bane of life in the developing world will eventually diminish as economies expand and sizeable middle classes emerge. And that's good news for visitors to Georgia, who should look forward to the day when they can experience Georgians' world-famous hospitality, both on and off the roadways.

Daniel Allott is a writer and policy analyst for American Values, a Washington, D.C. area public policy organization.