June 20, 2018
Road Safety, Here and Abroad

Road Safety, Here and Abroad

by Berkeley Wellness  

No matter where your vacation takes you, it likely will involve traveling by car for at least part of the time. That may mean driving your own car if you’re traveling locally or going on a road trip, renting a car either here or abroad, or having a driver at your destination. You may also be taking taxis, buses, or other road vehicles on your journey.

Much attention is given to plane accidents since they can be so catastrophic, involve many fatalities, and seem so uncontrollable—which is why many people are afraid of flying. In contrast, most travelers think little about the safety of car travel. Yet car travel is considerably riskier than air travel. The fact is, you’re far more likely to be killed in a car crash on your way to the airport than in the air.

According to the National Safety Council, which uses only U.S. data, the death rate in cars, vans, and other “light duty vehicles” was 0.47 per 100 million passenger-miles, while that for domestic flights was 0.001—a nearly 500-fold difference. Trains and buses are also much safer than cars, with passenger death rates of 0.03 and 0.04, respectively. All in all, some 35,000 people died in motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. alone in 2015, compared to 898 plane crash fatalities worldwide.

How risky is driving abroad?

It depends where you go. It’s actually safer to drive in many other countries than in the U.S. As World Health Organization statistics show, the U.S. has the highest motor vehicle fatality rate—11 per 100,000 people per year—compared with 20 other high-income countries. In particular, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the U.K., and Israel collectively have about a two-thirds lower fatality rate than the U.S. In contrast, fatality rates are generally higher in less developed regions of the world. For instance, the Dominican Republic has a road fatality rate of about 29 per 100,000 people per year, Belize 24, Brazil 23, Morocco 21, Guatemala, 19, Cambodia 17, and Costa Rica, 14.

The CDC notes that 85 percent of all traffic-related casualties worldwide occur in low- and middle-income countries. To blame are such factors as poor road conditions, older vehicles, inadequate driver training, lax traffic regulations and enforcement, and less seat belt use. Cars may share roads with bicycles, animals, motorcycles, rickshaws, and other things; taxis often don’t have seat belts; buses may be overloaded and overcrowded. Crashes in poorer countries may also lead to more deaths due to less accessible or inadequate medical care.

Be aware that road customs and terrain in other countries may be very different from what you are used to. You may have to drive on the “other” side of the road or on mountain roads with hairpin turns. Road signs may be in languages you don’t know. Some “unique” regional customs—such as drivers ignoring lanes and traffic lights—can make for especially harrowing road travel.

When the rubber hits the road

Worldwide, about 25,000 people per year are killed in crashes while traveling abroad, according to CDC estimates. Don’t be one of them.

  • Before driving off in your rental car: Check all systems, including turn signals, headlights, mirrors, air conditioning, radio, and GPS. If you’re using a GPS phone app, make sure it works well in that country, or use one that locals recommend. If you’re using a paper map, check it before driving or pull over to do so—or else have a passenger read the map. Be familiar with local traffic laws and road culture.
  • Wear your seat belt (parents may want to bring child car seats with them if there’s a chance they won’t be available).
  • Use only licensed cabs that are well marked and well maintained and have working seat belts. In some places, it’s best to call for taxis rather than hail them on the street.
  • Try to avoid driving at night, especially in less-developed countries and on mountain roads.
  • If you rent a motorbike (not advised), wear a helmet; avoid heavily traveled roads.
  • Traveling with Fido in the car? Keep pets in a carrier or otherwise restrained.
  • Obviously, don’t drink and drive, and be aware that laws in many other countries are much more stringent than in the U.S. Don’t use your cell phone while driving.
  • Opt for first-class buses in developing countries, if available. They cost more but tend to have better safety records.
  • Check the safety records of local airlines (especially if you’re using low-cost carriers) at Safety Ratings Per Airline and JACDEC Airline Safety Ranking 2017.
  • Get more road safety information at Driving and Road Safety Abroad. You can also check country-specific road conditions.

Also see 8 Ways to Avoid Foodborne Illness When Traveling.