TUESDAY, April 1 (HealthDay News) -- Over 1.2 million people die each year on the world's roadways -- more than are killed by major scourges such as malaria or diabetes.
In response to this growing epidemic, the United Nations' General Assembly on Monday approved the first ever conference on road safety, to be held next year in Russia.
It's high time the issue of traffic fatalities got the attention it deserves, advocates said, especially since experts expect vehicle ownership in populous nations such as China and India to double in the next 20 years.
"We have an epidemic in the making -- one that we can stop," said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, the U.S. member of the Commission for Global Road Safety and moderator of a press briefing Monday at the United Nations in New York City. "We have solutions at hand -- what we don't have is the attention of the world to this problem," he added.
The Make Roads Safe campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that's long lobbied for global action on traffic deaths, offered these grim statistics on the scope of the problem:
"A lot of us have been trying to bring this issue forward for a long time, but the public tends not to look at these things as something that is preventable," said Dr. Linda Degutis, president of the American Public Health Association.
Changes in driver behaviors are key, Degutis said. In many countries, truck, bus and other transport employees drive recklessly due to economic pressures, with little policing to restrain them. "The quicker they can do a route, the faster they can get there, the more money they make," she said. "There's just not that incentive to be safe. We have to create those incentives for safety."
There was some star power on hand at the U.N. to help focus attention on the issue. Michelle Yeoh, the Chinese actress best known to Western audiences for her roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha, spoke to delegates of her recent experiences as a Make Roads Safe campaign ambassador in Asia.
"I honestly wasn't prepared, on our first fact-finding trip to Vietnam, for the emotional trauma that greeted us," Yeoh said. She recounted visiting a hospital and meeting a bewildered 5-year-old girl who had lost a foot after a traffic accident, then talking with a woman whose 9-year-old daughter had perished in a motorcycle crash.
Yeoh also attempted something millions of Vietnamese do every day: cross a chaotic urban roadway.
"Some of you may know that I make action movies. But for five seconds, I just stood there, terrified," she said. "I didn't think that I could do it."
Other advocates of the U.N. campaign include former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Oscar Arias Sanchez, president of Costa Rica.