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ARGENTINA: Regional Leader in Traffic Deaths

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jul 27 2007 (IPS) - Traffic accidents in Argentina have been claiming an average of 20 lives a day over the past decade, making it the top country in Latin America for these tragedies. They are also the main cause of death among people under 35, but in spite of this there are no official plans to end the slaughter on the roads.

“The worst thing is that in spite of the statistics, there is no state policy to tackle the problem, and so we have no national executive authority in charge of road safety, nor a programme, nor a budget for it,” Eduardo Bertotti, the director of the private Institute of Road Safety and Education (ISEV), told IPS.

“The political powers-that-be are not concerned about it, and we think this is a serious cultural problem within the state and among our citizens,” the expert said. Countries like Chile, Colombia and Costa Rica at least have government institutions to fight it, he said.

News reports of traffic accidents have become so familiar in Argentina that instead of causing concern they have become the norm. Every day there are reports of buses that have turned over, multiple crashes on highways, pedestrians and cyclists knocked down, and car drivers or motorcyclists being killed or injured because they were not wearing safety belts or helmets.

Argentina has a national traffic law but it is more honoured in the breach than the observance, and there is no effective system of penalties for offenders. “The main cause of accidental death in this country is speeding,” said Alberto Silveira of the non-governmental organisation Luchemos por la Vida (Let’s Fight for Life).

A study by the organisation concluded that two million of the seven million vehicles in the country ran a red light at least once a day in 2002. Nowadays that figure is twice as high, with the addition of 400,000 bus drivers (with passengers) a day ignoring red lights.

María Cristina Isoba, an expert with Luchemos por la Vida, said that the lack of infrastructure on roads and highways, the absence of traffic safety policies, and risk-taking behaviour contribute to the vast majority of accidents, independently of the number of vehicles on the streets.

Monitoring done by the organisation indicates that the number of people killed in road accidents has remained at a fairly constant level over the past 10 years. In 1997 there were 8,123 fatalities; the next year the death toll was 7,579 and this continued virtually unchanged until 2006, when 7,557 people were killed, of whom 1,200 were under 15.

A spate of serious accidents has prompted the government of Néstor Kirchner to declare 2007 “Road Safety Year” and oblige all public administration documents to carry the slogan as a letterhead. But they are only words, and another increase in the number of deaths on the road is expected by the end of this year.

“Paradoxically, this year will be one of the worst in terms of (road accident) results,” Bertotti said.

The national ombudsman’s office, which has worked with associations concerned with road safety and accidents, launched an initiative in 2006 calling on the state to declare a road safety emergency, create a national authority in charge of the issue, and implement an accident prevention plan.

Nearly half a million people supported the proposal, but no programme has yet been established.

ISEV said that mortality is already up by nearly seven percent in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period last year, and serious injuries are up by nearly 40 percent. Some 120,000 people are injured in accidents every year.

Research carried out by Bertotti found that Argentina has the highest mortality rate from traffic accidents in Latin America, followed by Mexico, Brazil and Uruguay. Meanwhile, Luchemos por la Vida reported that Argentina also has the highest number of road deaths per million vehicles.

The statistics are from 2001 but they indicate that, for every million cars, 129 people died in Sweden from traffic accidents, 181 in the Netherlands, 196 in the United States, 211 in Spain and 1,058 in Argentina. “Some people think that there are more accidents because there are more cars, but that is not the case: other factors are responsible,” said Isoba.

The expert pointed out that in Argentina, most of the people killed on the road are pedestrians who cross streets outside the crossing lane, do not wait for the lights, or wait on the street instead of on the sidewalk.

Many accidents also occur when pedestrians walk along streets or highways.

Traffic accidents are the main cause of death among young people, and the third cause of death throughout the population, after heart disease and cancer. The road will continue to claim victims at a voracious rate until preventive measures are taken.

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