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Traffic Takes A Tremendous Global Toll, But Cheap Fixes Can Save Lives

Tough helmet laws have caused the number of helmet wearers in a Vietnamese province to jump from 34 percent to 76 percent.

More than 1 million people die in traffic deaths around the world each year — that's drivers, passengers, cyclists and pedestrians combined.

It's a problem in the United States: There are 11.4 deaths a year per 100,000 population. It's a problem in low-income countries like Zambia, where the comparable figure is 23.8 deaths. And it's a huge problem in the middle-income world. The Dominican Republic records 41.7 deaths per 100,000, and was ranked in 2013 as the most dangerous country in the world for drivers.

As you'd expect, many of these deaths occur on city streets. Reasons for the deaths range from poor infrastructure to local customs. There are few traffic lights in Mongolian cities, for example. And in Mumbai, the sacred cow has the right of way.

That's why a new report, Cities Safer by Design, is proposing ideas to bring the numbers down. The report, from the World Resource Institute, was released this week.

The solutions aren't revolutionary. Speed bumps really do slow down traffic. A pedestrian island is a safe haven for someone caught mid-road when the traffic light changes. These kinds of design changes don't cost a lot but can have a big payoff.

Sweden is a good example of a country that used design to reduce traffic deaths, according to the World Health Organization. There were 772 deaths in 1990 versus 285 in 2012. Among the changes that brought the death total down: reduced speeds on city streets, barriers separating bikes and cars, and hundreds of miles of roads with a middle lane for passing.

But redesign can't eliminate every traffic death. "Infrastructure is part of the solution, " says David Sleet, a specialist at the Centers for Disease Control's division of Unintentional Injury Prevention. "The other part is a change in the culture of driving, walking, biking behavior." In other words: "Wear seat belts, use helmets, manage speed and avoid drinking and walking/driving/cycling."

That kind of attitude change is helping in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Residents hail "boda" taxis and then hang on for dear life. Bodas account for 40 percent of the city's traffic deaths. Last year a nonprofit group started "Safe Boda." Drivers are trained in road safety and carry helmets for their passengers (and for themselves as well).

Expect to see more changes — and hopefully a dip in that fatality rate in the coming years. Bloomberg Philanthropies, which has already donated tens of millions to reduce traffic deaths and injuries, last year committed an additional $125 million over five years to be spent on legislation in countries and on proven road safety interventions in cities.

The Association for Safe International Road Travel says changes have already been realized from the last Bloomberg grant. In Vietnam, compulsory helmet-wearing laws on all roads supported by tough enforcement and penalties dramatically increased compliance and wearing rates and reduced injuries and fatalities dramatically. in 2011, only 34 percent of cyclists in Vietnam's Ha Nam province used helmets, and today 76 percent do.

Sometimes a little bit of humor can get people to change their unsafe habits. As part of an ad campaign in Lisbon last year, the car company SmartCar briefly installed a traffic light that had the little animated red man perform dance steps inspired by pedestrians. The temptation to cross against the light is always strong, but in this case, over 80 percent of the passersby waited (and were entertained) until the red light man turned green.

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