The world's most pressing public health crisis isn't AIDS or Ebola or malaria -- it's a soaring number of motorcycle fatalities. And it's costing developing countries billions. An article written by Foreign Policy, an online and print news outlet have placed renewed focus on road safety. It places a spotlight on the increasing rate of motorcycles in the low and middle-income countries and its rising burden of road crashes.
On a typically steamy afternoon in Phnom Penh, Chhay Hour, a 26-year-old engineer who works for Cambrew, Cambodia’s largest brewery, has been bargaining hard for a used Honda in the capital’s Prampi Makara district, known for its hundreds of used motorcycle shops. This will be his first bike. He used to walk to work from company-provided housing at its main facility near Sihanoukville. But he’s been transferred to a new job in the capital and will have to commute about four miles. Hence the need for wheels.
I ask Hour, a lanky fellow with a self-assured air, if he has a license.
This attitude — and this kind of petty corruption — is pervasive across Southeast Asia. If the traffic police don’t take traffic laws seriously, why should anyone else?
The graft, people seem to think, is just the cost of doing business in a developing economy — a necessary evil that greases the wheels. As one senior police official in Bangkok told me, “People are not complaining about it. If they can buy a police officer, it’s much better than the whole tedious process of going through the courts and paying a heavier fine. So they prefer it this way, even if it makes the whole society corrupt.”
Only about a quarter of Cambodia’s drivers bother to get a license, and a recent survey found that 70 percent of the country’s motorists didn’t understand the meaning of a simple stop sign. Which might explain why the country is at the head of world’s most-overlooked health crisis: the sharply rising death toll that has trailed the developing world’s motorcycle boom.
In wealthy countries like the United States, motorcycles typically represent 3 to 5 percent of the vehicles on the road, but a disproportionate 12 to 20 percent of the road fatalities. Across Asia, which is the epicenter of the motorcycle boom, two- and three-wheeled vehicles account for about a third of all highway deaths, with the highest numbers in Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, for example, motorcycle crashes represent 67 percent of all road deaths; in Thailand and Laos it has reached a staggering 74 percent. With the number of vehicles in the region doubling every five years, the number of fatalities is expected to grow commensurately.
On an official level, governments pay lip service to making roads safer and the need to accommodate the growing number of motorcycles, but they appear to view the body count as an unavoidable cost of economic progress. This, however, is a serious miscalculation.
According to World Bank estimates, road crashes are costing the economies of Southeast Asia between 2 and 3.5 percent in annual GPD. Loss of productivity due to death and long-term disability (the overwhelming majority of motorcycle fatalities are male breadwinners), the burden on the health care system and property damage are the main factors. Ratnak Sao, a WHO road safety specialist in Phnom Penh, told me that road crashes cost the Cambodian economy $337 million last year. “It’s not just the people who are killed,” said Sao. “Everybody pays.”
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