Foreign Roads Can Be Deadly for U.S. Travelers

Can crashes are the No. 1 killer of healthy American's in foreign countries.

ByABC News
August 14, 2007, 10:55 AM

— -- Motor vehicle crashes -- not crime or terrorism -- are the No. 1 killer of healthy Americans in foreign countries. And the threat to travelers is poised to increase dramatically as worldwide economic growth gives more people access to motor vehicles.

Corporate employers, including energy giant Chevron, (CVX) are teaming with safety advocates to combat what they view as a rapidly worsening epidemic of highway deaths and injuries, particularly in developing countries.

"The road-safety problem worldwide for travelers and locals constitutes a growing public health crisis," says Tony Bliss, lead road safety specialist for the World Bank. He says it's "a far greater problem than many more widely acknowledged diseases."

Much of the growth in motor vehicle usage is in developing countries, where roads are sub-standard, signage deficient, traffic regulations lax and enforcement spotty. While local residents bear most of the risk of death and injury, travelers can be particularly vulnerable because of their lack of familiarity with surroundings and with local customs.

Frequent business travelers Mian Chin and Richard Hadden are two of many Americans involved in separate accidents abroad who say they're lucky to be alive.

Chin, 52, an atmospheric scientist from Maryland, was in a bus accident last August during a business trip from western China to Tibet. The bus driver said, " 'We're finished,' " she says. "We thought we were going to die."

The brakes failed on a steep mountain road, but, luckily for Chin and 24 others inside, the bus plowed into a herd of yaks, slammed into a retaining wall and stopped. One woman hurt her back, and Chin needed stitches on her arm and wrist, but it was "a miracle that no one was seriously injured," she says.

Travelers' risks are not limited to developing nations. Hadden, an author and a professional speaker in Jacksonville, was in a head-on collision in England in 2002 on a single-lane road bounded on both sides by 12-foot hedges. "Suddenly, a local man driving carelessly at about 50 mph came around a blind curve," he recalls. Both cars were totaled, but no one was hurt.

The World Health Organization and the World Bank estimated in a 2004 joint report that 1.2 million people are killed each year in traffic crashes, and 20 million to 50 million are injured or disabled. About 85% of the deaths are in low- and middle-income countries. The organizations predict that traffic fatalities worldwide will increase to 2.3 million in 2020, nearly double today's fatalities.