World Health Day 2004


World Health Day 2004: Road Safety

An estimated 1.26 million men, women and children were killed around the world in the first year of the 21st century - not by wars or diseases or natural disasters, but by and in traffic accidents.

In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 25 percent of all deaths due to injuries are the result of road traffic injuries. The leading causes of traffic and traffic-related deaths include drunk driving, speeding and improper or lack of use of safety or seat belts.

All of this has prompted WHO to choose "Road Safety" as the theme for World Health Day 2004. WHO's World Health Day is celebrated annually on April 7.

On that day around the world, WHO hopes that hundreds of organizations will host events to help raise awareness about road traffic injuries, their serious consequences and huge costs to society.

The public health community, led by WHO, considers road traffic injuries to be a major but neglected public problem requiring concerted multi-sectoral prevention efforts.

The objectives for the 2004 World Health Day on road safety are:

  • Raises awareness about the health impact, social and economic costs of road traffic injuries.
  • Highlight the particular vulnerabilities of certain groups of road users.
  • Issue a call for action to increase efforts to prevent road traffic injuries.

Indeed, in a report prepared earlier this year for the United Nations on the Global Road Safety Crisis, WHO estimated that the economic costs of road traffic injuries amount to $518 billion per year. In developing countries, the costs are estimated at about $100 billion - twice the yearly amount of development aid to those countries.

"Current and projected trends in motorization signal that the problems of road traffic injuries will get worse, becoming a global public health crisis," the WHO report noted.

The Geneva-based organization estimated that by the year 2020 "road traffic crashes would be the second leading cause of mortality and morbidity in developing countries. This is in contrast to higher-income countries where long-term development means that vehicle use evolves at a slower pace, allowing road safety efforts to evolve in parallel."

Current health statistics published by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) on all transport accidents in the Americas rank the United States, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela as the five top nations in the number of traffic-related deaths. It is as following for these countries per 100,000 population (latest figures available):

  • United States - 45,833 (during the 1997-1999 period)
  • Brazil - 34,098 (during the 1996-1999 period)
  • Mexico - 14,737 (during the 1998-2000 period)
  • Colombia - 7,523 (during the 1996-1998 period)
  • Venezuela - 4,935 (during the 1998-2000 period)

In the United States, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for Hispanics between the ages of 1 and 34, and the third leading cause of death for all ages surpassed only by heart disease and cancer, according to the U.S. Transportation Department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

NHTSA also found that Hispanics are less likely to wear a seat belt. In addition, a NHTSA study said, "although Hispanic male teenagers travel fewer miles than their white counterparts, they are nearly twice as likely to die in a motor vehicle crash."

In total in the United States, the world's most motorized society, police in 2002 reported an estimated 6.3 million traffic crashes, in which 42,815 people were killed and more than 2.9 million people were injured, according to NHTSA. The U.S. Transportation Department agency also has published the following traffic safety facts for 2002:

  • An average of 117 persons died each day in motor vehicle crashes - one every 12 minutes.
  • Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for every age from 2 through 33 years old.
  • Vehicle occupants accounted for 87 percent of traffic fatalities. The remaining 13 percent were pedestrians, pedalcyclists and other nonoccupants.

WHO said in its report to the U.N. that in addition to the million-plus people killed worldwide, "hundreds of thousands more are injured on our roads, some of whom become permanently disabled. The vast majority of these occur in developing countries, among pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and users of public transport, many of whom would never be able to afford a private motor vehicle."

According to WHO's August 2003 report on the Global Road Safety Crisis, in 2000 an estimated 1.26 million people worldwide died as a result of road traffic injuries.

"Road traffic injuries accounted for 2.2 per cent of global mortality and were responsible for 25 percent of all deaths due to injury. Around the world, injuries are among the leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 44, and road traffic injuries are responsible for 25 percent of all deaths due to injury," the report said.

Road traffic injuries, the same report noted, also exact a heavy toll in terms of the ill health they cause. In 2000, road traffic crashes ranked as the ninth leading cause of mortality and morbidity, accounting for 2.8 percent of all global deaths and disability.

"WHO projections suggest that by 2020 road traffic injuries could rank third among causes of death and disability, ahead of such other health problems as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS," the report said.

WHO has estimated that death from all kinds of injuries are projected to rise from 5.1 million in 1990 to 8.4 million in 2020 - with the increase in road traffic injuries a major cause for this rise.

Although the number of motor vehicles per population is much higher in developed countries, the toll due to road traffic injuries is highest in developing countries, WHO's report on road traffic injuries said.

Which are the key factors - all preventable, according to WHO - responsible for road traffic injuries?

  • Driving under the influence of alcohol (In the United States alone, based on NHTSA statistics, there were 17,419 alcohol-related fatalities in 2002, or 1 every 30 minutes).
  • Speeding.
  • Under-utilization of seat belts and child restraints.
  • Poor road design and roadway environment.
  • Unsafe vehicle design.
  • Under-implementation of road safety standards.

These are some of the highlights of WHO's 11-page report submitted to the U.N. General Assembly this past summer:

  • "The burden of road traffic injuries falls disproportionally on people in low- and middle-income countries.
  • "The magnitude of the road traffic injury problem varies according to geographical region. Thus, of the 1.26 million yearly road crash deaths in 2000, more than one-third (435,000) occurred in South-East Asia.
  • "Road traffic injuries involve issues of equity. They disproportionally affect the poor in developing countries, where the major road crash victims are vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians, cyclists, children and passengers.
  • "Road traffic injuries disproportionally affect young people. More than 50 percent of global mortality due to road traffic injury occurs among young adults, aged 15 to 44.
  • "Globally, the road traffic injury mortality rate for males is almost three times as high as it is for females."

"The evidence suggests that the global rise in road traffic injuries is only beginning and will exact a particularly heavy toll in developing countries," the WHO report concluded.

PAHO was established in 1902 and is the world's oldest public health organization. PAHO works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and the quality of life of its people. It serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO).

PAHO Member States today include all 35 countries in the Americas. France, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are Participating States. Portugal and Spain are Observer States, and Puerto Rico is an Associate Member.

For more information, video material, or photographs please contact: Juan Walte, Office of Public Information, (202) 974-3172, e-mail: