Traffic accidents in South America, radiograph of an unknown epidemic


“Two cyclists are killed by a truck on the northern access road to Lima, Peru”; “Death fulminating of a family of five members after charging against an omnibus bus to Ilha Grande, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil”; “A collective that took peasants to work in Coroico, Bolivia falls to the precipice. Eleven dead”.

How many of these news stories do newspaper headlines in South America occupy daily? They are stories expressed through ephemeral numbers. Lives taken to simple superficial stories. They occupy just a few lines of ink or a few minutes on television. The next day, little and nothing is known of each of these people, fatalities, the result of one of the great contemporary epidemics: that of traffic accidents.

The report of the World Health Organization (WHO) on the state of world road safety 2018 highlights that “injuries caused by traffic are now the leading cause of death of children and young people from 5 to 29 years.” Therefore, an a priori conclusion outlined by the aforementioned report is that progress has been insufficient in addressing the lack of safety on the world’s transit routes.

“These deaths are an unacceptable price to pay for mobility,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “There is no excuse for inaction. This is a problem with proven solutions. This report is a call to governments and partners to take much greater measures to implement these measures”, he said.

According to the WHO report on the global state of road safety 2018, although the total number of deaths has increased, mortality rates according to the size of the world population have stabilized in recent years. This suggests that existing road safety efforts in some middle and upper income countries have mitigated the situation. Within the road safety efforts, certain state policies are included, such as providing greater access to health services, increasing the resolution capacity of these services in cases of emergencies, educational policies on road awareness, among others.

Transportation in the 2030 Agenda

The United Nations adopted in September 2016 the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. For the first time, road safety was recognized as a development priority. In at least three of the 17 objectives of this agenda there is an explicit mention of transportation, the main reason for road safety accidents. Objective 7, on affordable and non-polluting energy, stresses that “the use of renewable energy should be increased in sectors such as heating and transport”. Objective 9 on Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure demands that “to achieve a robust economy investments in infrastructure are needed (transport, irrigation, energy, information technology and communications)”. Finally, Objective 11, on Sustainable Cities and Communities, proclaims that the “future we want includes cities of opportunities, with access to basic services, such as energy, housing, transportation and more facilities for all”.

According to the 2018 report on the progress and regional challenges of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) on infrastructure and transport, “the continuous increase of the vehicle fleet contributes to the growing congestion in cities, which increases transport time and energy consumption “. In this sense, the report analyzes four important South American cities within which it is observed that, “although the use of collective transport is significant in Montevideo, Bogotá, Santiago and São Paulo, their relative participation is decreasing” (See graph). In addition, he points out that “there are countries where the vehicle fleet grew much faster than the economy, which represents a challenge in terms of changing the modes of production and consumption.”

The risk of death in transit is three times higher in low-income countries than in high-income countries. Rates are highest in Africa (26.6 per 100,000 population) and lowest in Europe (9.3 per 100,000 population).

In that sense, at the high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly last December, Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of ECLAC, emphasized that “the development agenda for 2030 represents a paradigm shift in international cooperation with the so-called middle-income countries and reinforces the importance of multilateralism and South-South cooperation”.

In a dialogue with Health to the South, Danielle Hoppe, Manager of Active Transportation of the Transportation and Development Policy Institute (ITDP), a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote environmentally sustainable and equitable transportation throughout the world, hails the UN decision to install the issue on the agenda of governments, but warns that it is a change that takes many years.

“It is good that the issue of road safety has reached the UN agenda, because they have seen results over these decades, however, it is a project in the medium term. The model of urbanization of the world in which we live is a model that kills”.

Danielle prefers to avoid talking about statistics when counting deaths. More than numbers, choose to highlight that “there are vulnerable users as they are: pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists.” Reflecting on the growth of deaths due to transit in the age group of young people from 5 to 29 years of age who heads the list of the UN, Danielle warns that “the number of deaths represents a very high social and economic cost. In addition to the loss of life itself, we are annihilating our productive future. That also has a huge price for health. It’s a great waterfall effect”.

Diverse Latin America, with similar problems

Road safety is a major problem in Latin America and substantial actions are required to reduce the number of fatalities and injuries on the roads. This is how forceful is the last report prepared by the International Transport Forum (FIT). It is an intergovernmental organization composed of 59 countries, linked to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that is dedicated to the formulation of transport policies and organizes the Annual Summit of Ministers of Transport.

Entitled “Benchmarking of road safety in Latin America”, the report addresses problems inherent to 7 of the 12 UNASUR countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay. The objective of this study was to develop a methodology to evaluate the road safety performance of 10 Latin American countries and compare their performance in relation to a set of indicators and best practices, which led to a series of recommendations for countries in the shape of individual can improve road safety. Thus, the practices were identified so that Latin American countries can learn from each other.

The FIT report warns that “in the absence of specific political interventions, unless there is significant investment and strong leadership, the number of deaths from traffic accidents will grow in Latin America during the next decade.”

A contemporary phenomenon that covers all South American countries is the enormous growth of motorization. Fleets of motorized two-wheelers have increased in all countries and have significantly increased exposure to traffic-related risks.

According to the FIT “the deterioration of the safety of motorcyclists is a particularly serious problem in Latin America due in large part to the dramatic increase of these vehicles. The level of motorcyclist victims has increased in all the countries addressed. In most countries, the victims are young adults and their premature death represents a significant economic loss. In view of the high risk inherent to motorcyclists compared to other road users, improving the safety of motorcyclists should be considered a priority in all countries. ”

“If speed reduction is involved, the matter is still a taboo. It has a high political cost to propose strategies to reduce the permitted limits, “says Danielle Hopper of the ITDP, who adds that” without doubt that is the most effective way to reduce accidents. It’s not enough to just place controls. ”

There is great evidence that speed is closely linked to the risk of collision. A simple and unquestionable equation emerges from the FIT study: “A 10% average increase in speed leads to a 40% increase in the number of fatal crashes, and a 10% decrease in average speed leads to 40 % decrease in the number of fatal crashes. Speed ​​management should be at the center of the road safety strategy of governments and civil society. ”

And then, what and where to go?

The axes from which it is essential to address this issue are the policies around the use of the safety belt, driving under the influence of alcohol and other drugs, use of seats for babies and children, infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians, control of limit of speed and road policies for motorcyclists.

The analysis of road safety management is a fundamental window from which to analyze the overall performance and opportunities for improvement of a country in the field of safety. Although in the South American region there are state agencies at the national, provincial and regional levels (see table) that lead these issues, many still do not have enough staff or the power to assume a formal leadership role. It will be through the strengthening of the aforementioned public road safety policies that governments achieve a reduction in the accident rates on the roads.














Author: Daniel Salman, Information and Comunication Coordenador  (

Design: Raquel Cerqueira,  Assistant(