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:
- More than 1 million people are killed worldwide, and more than 50 million are injured in traffic accidents each year.
- Road deaths are now the number-one global killer of people aged 10 to 24.
- While 965 people lost their lives in air crashes last year, more than 3,000 people die on the world's roadways every day.
- 85 percent of traffic casualties occur in low- and middle-income countries. For example, the rate of child deaths due to road accidents in South Africa is 26 per 100,000 population, compared with 1.7 per 100,000 in Europe.
- Someone is killed or badly injured on the world's roads every six seconds.
"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.
Traffic deaths aren't only a scourge of the developing world. In fact, road accidents remain the leading killer of American youth aged 13 to 24, according to the Make Roads Safe campaign.
"We hear tragedies about school shootings, drug abuse, everything else, but what we forget is that the tragedies we suffer from motor-vehicle crashes on a daily basis dwarf everything else," said Daniel Vocelle, 20, a student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who is also a Make Roads Safe youth ambassador.
Vocelle's motivation to join the fight against traffic deaths came after a cousin was killed in a 2006 motorcycle crash. "It was other drivers swerving out in front of him and not seeing," he said. "There are so many accidents now where people are just careless."
Still, certain measures have successfully reduced traffic deaths in the United States and should work elsewhere, experts said.
According to Rosenberg, these interventions include simple, low-cost steps such as installing barriers along the median to prevent head-on collisions; converting four-way intersections into safer traffic circles; and installing speed bumps.
Encouraging governments to beef up policing of reckless or drunk drivers, as well as improving driver training, can also help decrease the carnage, said Rosenberg, who is director of the Decatur, Ga.-based Task Force for Child Survival and Development.
Next year's global summit, which will gather together high-ranking ministers of transport and health from most of the U.N.'s member states, should help spur real change, Rosenberg added.
"We need high-level attention from every country to this problem, so that they can work together to turn this around," he said.
There's more on efforts to reduce traffic deaths worldwide at the Make Roads Safe campaign.
SOURCES: Mark Rosenberg, M.D., director, Task Force for Child Survival and Development, and U.S. member, Commission for Global Road Safety; Linda Degutis, Dr.P.H., president, American Public Health Association, Washington, D.C.; Michelle Yeoh, actress; Daniel Vocelle, Make Roads Safe campaign youth ambassador