Driving Brazil toward safer roads

Wednesday, December 03, 2014 by James Gorry

The World Health Organization estimates 1.27 million people die annually in traffic accidents. That means one person dies every 25 seconds; a truly frightening statistic. But how many of these would be caused by fatigue? Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly the number but given it has been widely accepted fatigue is involved in approximately 30% of road accidents, that means more than 400,000 people may lose their life each year due to drowsy driving.

Recently I returned from my second trip to Brazil for the year. During my stay, I spent considerable time driving in rural areas to visit customer mine sites. As the country is so large, often it required a two-hour flight and up to five hours of driving to reach the remote locations. Not only did this provide a great opportunity to see their beautiful country but it also gave me great comparative insight into their transportation and road infrastructure issues.

Road conditions comparison

Australia is considered geographically to be a large country, but of course Brazil is much larger in land mass. Brazil also has about 10 times the population with around 200 million compared to Australia’s 22 million people. There are also some significant and subtle environmental differences that become apparent when you are travelling within the country.

Last year a staggering 50,000 people died on Brazilian roads, compared to 1,193 fatalities for the same period in Australia. That makes the number in Brazil seem statistically high; in fact you are 42 times more likely to die on the road in Brazil than Australia. Police blame excess speed, reckless overtaking, drunk-driving and the poor road conditions for their high traffic accident statistics, but how many would be as a result of fatigue? Like Australia, the long distances people have to drive would certainly contribute to the number of drowsy driving incidents, but it’s difficult to be exact. Additionally, the ratio of trucks to cars in Brazil is extremely high, because the majority of produce is transported by road due to the sheer size of the country. While travelling as a passenger, I videoed the oncoming traffic near Bello Horizonte and the ratio of trucks to cars was about 10 to one.

The demographic on public transport is also different. There are few passenger trains and many people can’t afford their own car, so most Brazilians use buses to travel to work. The mine sites I visited bus in their workforce as most workers don’t have cars or the means to afford them. Some have motorbikes but trucks and buses do the majority of transportation.

A recent article in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization stated BRICS countries (Brazil, Russian Federation, India, China, South Africa) countries account for approximately 20% of world’s deaths from road traffic incidents and associated economic losses; estimated at 1-3% of the countries’ gross domestic products. Each of the five BRICS countries has experienced recent rapid and considerable economic growth along with substantial political and social change. The increased growth has been accompanied by fast-paced developments and this has led to an increased number of vehicles without the necessary infrastructure and law enforcement.

The road ahead

So, Brazil’s struggle to keep pace has been one of the key factors in the increasing road toll and unfortunately, this number is only expected to increase unless investments in road safety are made. The research findings in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization article stated that in order to improve road safety, the five BRICS countries must invest in system-wide road safety interventions as well as collect more reliable data in order to track changes in more detail, increase law enforcement and research capacity. To this end Brazil has adopted UN recommendations which means they have to halve their road fatalities by 2020.

Given the social and economic impact of road fatalities; I am certainly hoping they are able to address this problem with some sense of urgency.

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