How Likely You Are to Die on the Roads

With Avi Naor
When it comes to accidents, everybody figures, "It won't happen to me." Actually, though, it probably will.

Traffic safety barely flickers on the personal radar screen and the statistics appear to support this general mindset. After all, the probability of becoming a casualty on any given trip is close to zero, so the complacency of those sitting behind the wheel or crossing the road is understandable.

But if you take a step back and look at the data from a different perspective, the picture darkens.

According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, roughly 8,000 people were killed and over 600,000 injured, more than 50,000 of these severely, on Israel's roads during the years 1990-2005. The average population is less than 6 million. Ergo, the probability that you will get hurt or killed in a traffic accident during the next decade and a half is 11%.

To illustrate what this implies for a family of five, the probability that at least one of the family members will become a casualty - and not just involved - in a traffic accident is 43%. The probability that one of the five family members will be killed in an accident during the next 16 years is close to 1 percent. These are no longer trivial odds. When one considers the extended family, then there is hardly a family in Israel that will not suffer a casualty from traffic accidents during the next decade and a half.

These statistics are not part of some pre-determined fate. They are also different from those of many other countries.

The number of fatalities per 10,000 vehicles in Israel is one-third higher than in the United States. It is twice the Australian level and 2.4 times greater than the Netherlands, Switzerland and the UK.

What do these numbers mean? Lowering the number of traffic fatalities in 2005 to the level of the Netherlands would have spared 266 lives, or 60 percent of the 448 killed. Just think how many lives could have been spared over the last decade and a half. This could have been a completely different country.

How can we lower the incidence of traffic fatalities? First, it is possible - and necessary - to remove many people from the roads by building fast, available and cheap mass transportation systems. This is important also from the perspective of improving efficiency in the economy, lowering production costs and increasing output - with all of the positive implications this would have on raising living standards and reducing income disparity.

When the focus turns to the risk associated with actual travel on the roads - that is, the number of fatalities per kilometer traveled - the situation in Israel continues to look bad in comparison with other countries: 28 percent more fatalities than the U.S., 50 percent more than Australia and Switzerland, 56 percent more than the Netherlands, and 58 percent more than the UK There is much room for improvement.

According to one of the leading researchers in this field, Prof. Ian Johnston, we need to "put five-star people in five-star cars on five-star roads." In other words, traffic safety education is critical, but it is only one variable in the equation. It is also important to switch to new vehicles that are designed and built to provide greater safety. And the third variable, infrastructure, plays a decisive role in completing the picture.

Despite the frequent inclination to place responsibility for an accident on the "human factor," the time has come to redefine what this term actually means. When narrow road shoulders are constructed, when poles and trees are placed in close proximity to traffic, when sharp curves are built on intercity roads, when road markings are inadequate and misleading, when there is no serious enforcement of laws against the most dangerous traffic violations, then this is a "human factor" that must be addressed. Hopefully, the National Traffic Safety Authority currently being established will identify and influence the entire human factor issue in a manner much more effective than we have known so far.

Dan Ben-David teaches economics in the Department of Public Policy in Tel Aviv University. Avi Naor is the chairman and founder of the Or Yarok Association.