Traffic can be a daunting experience in many countries. And much more so in lesser developed countries. Several times (read: many) I have showed other drivers what I feel about their behaviour.
Not very commendable, despite lambasting them from inside a car, in my own language. And of course, to no avail.
In order to calm my nerves, when stuck in a traffic jam, I started to reflect on the link between traffic behaviour and level of development. And came to the conclusion, there must be a connection.
The first day in my own car, in the traffic in Vientiane, Laos I experienced several heart attacks and nervous breakdowns. A motorbike, suddenly making a U-turn in front of me, or a lorry, deciding to park there and then, in the middle of the street.
In the more developed Thailand, with horrendous statistics on traffic accidents (at least they have statistics), things flow much smoother.
Mexicans, citizens of an even more developed country, mostly park where they are supposed to, not blocking entrances and pavements.
In highly developed Greece, but still behind many other European countries, motorcyclists without helmets are a common sight. That was also the case in Scandinavia some decades ago, but not any longer.
Apart from the unimportant frustrations of a spoiled western woman, and the important losses in revenues slow traffic causes, there is an even more serious side to bad traffic behaviour.
According to WHO, 90 % of deaths in traffic occur in middle- and low-income countries.
In terms of traffic mortality per capita Africa tops the bleak list, followed by South-East Asia, the Americas and Europe with the least traffic related deaths.
The correlation is not 100%, and there are several exceptions, when comparing countries with different level of development; but the pattern is rather clear. Greece, with a slightly bigger population, had 805 reported traffic deaths in 2016, compared to Sweden with 259.
The Good News
The good news is that more and more countries realize the impact road injuries and traffic mortality have on society, and on development.
The measures are pretty much the same as in richer countries where number of fatalities have plunged. More police controls clamping down on high speed or drunk driving; or ensuring the use of helmets and safety belts.
More costly investments in safer vehicles and safer roads may be beyond reach for many countries in the short-run. But several low-cost measures have proven good results.
But Do Not Forget The Why
These are all important and prerequisite measures. However, without at the same time addressing ‘The Why’ you will not get all that far. People need to understand why they should wear a helmet or not drinking and driving. Then, and only then, will safety be put first.
Otherwise, what I saw frequently in South-East Asia will persist: motorcyclists wearing helmets because they were told to, but did not bother to fasten them.
And linked to this ‘Why’ is the notion of risk.
Once in Morocco we asked a bus-driver to drive more slowly; he just answered with: “Inshallah.” (if God wills it). In many countries with lower human development, superstitions and believe in fate are still rampant.
That was also the case in preindustrial Europe, with recurrent famines, diseases and wars that people had, or believed they had, no influence on. It was up to God whether or not they would survive the plague or get through the winter.
This changed with the onset of the industrial revolution. The sociologists Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck have described this evolvement. An industrialized society faced unprecedented dangers such as pollution and exposure to chemicals. It was clear that these were all man-made.
With growing results from science and better education, people gradually realized that human beings could influence even the godsend calamities. And started to implement hygiene standards, and improve agricultural methods.
In the wake of an increasing acknowledgment of the power to impact hazards, came our responsibility to deal with them. Suddenly it was your responsibility to do what you could to prevent accidents or the spread of diseases.
The same regards your conduct in modern day traffic. It is your responsibility to prevent yourself and others from getting hurt. God has, by and large, disappeared from that picture.
The Absence of Future
This risk consciousness is to a large degree absent in low- income countries. When you are living on the marginal and focus on the tasks you must do to get by here and now, you have no energy or ‘bandwidth’ left for thinking in terms of future risks. And this mindset often persists for a long time, even when people have gotten out of poverty.
This will change, and my unscientific ‘research’ shows it already has in many countries, with growing levels of development. It will just take time. An encouraging occurrence was the sign set up behind the bus driver on buses in Nicaragua: ‘Do not ask me to drive faster.’
So, according to me, traffic behaviour is a parameter for development. The next time you are stuck in a traffic jam, in a southern metropolis, or sitting stiff with sweaty palms during a drive on perilous country roads; try to remember that it is just a step on the development ladder. This will also pass. Perhaps not in your lifetime, but I am pretty sure we will see improvements in a few years from now.
When it is further between the memorials along the roads in Latin-America. Or when you can actually walk on the pavements in Phnom Penh, without having to zigzag between cars.