Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

Argentina’s Roads Still a Death Trap

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, May 3 2010 (IPS) - Two years after a law was enacted that held out the promise of better road safety in Argentina, the country’s death toll from traffic accidents is still one of the highest in Latin America.

Safety experts who hailed the law creating the National Road Safety Agency (ANSV) in April 2008 were pleased that the Agency secured an international loan this April to help implement the programme.

However, they concede that the ANSV has not produced the hoped-for results, and cast doubts on official statistics indicating a supposed fall in the accident rate so far this year.

“The death toll from traffic accidents does not fall magically from one year to the next; that takes work over a longer timescale,” Axel Dell’Olio, a road safety expert with the non-governmental organisation Luchemos por la Vida (“Let’s Fight for Life”), told IPS.

In Dell’Olio’s view, the new government agency highlights its activities “with a very good publicity campaign, but the fall in the number of fatal accidents between 2008 and 2009 was insignificant.” And it is not true that the accident rate has suddenly dropped this year, he said.

According to Luchemos por la Vida’s latest figures, 7,885 people died as a result of traffic accidents in Argentina in 2009. The number has remained at the same level, with little variation, for at least the past 15 years.

Furthermore, over 120,000 people were seriously injured in last year’s road accidents, which caused material damages costing 10 billion dollars, the organisation says.

Traffic accidents are the primary cause of death for people under 35, and the third cause overall for Argentina’s population of 40 million. This is equivalent to an airplane carrying 130 people crashing every week, with no survivors, Luchemos por la Vida says.

At least 21 people a day are killed on the roads because of speeding, drunk driving, failure to use safety belts or motorcycle helmets, or inadequate rest periods for drivers of public transport vehicles.

Parents of children at Colegio Ecos, a secondary school in Buenos Aires, who formed a road safety group after nine students and a teacher from the school died in a bus accident in 2006, complained in April about the lack of tangible improvements.

In April, Labour Ministry inspectors found that nearly 40 percent of long-distance drivers at the Retiro bus terminal in Buenos Aires had broken the rules prescribing specific rest periods.

The number of fatal victims in proportion to Argentina’s road fleet of seven million vehicles is five times higher than in Spain, Dell’Olio said.

Although ANSV has issued no report, Interior Minister Florencio Randazzo claimed last month that the number of traffic accident fatalities fell sharply in the first quarter of 2010.

Randazzo said the death toll from road accidents dropped by 21 percent in January compared to the same month in 2008, and by 19.4 percent in February compared to February 2008 (January and February are peak months for road travel in the southern hemisphere summer). During Holy Week, in late March and early April this year, it fell by 42 percent compared with last year’s Easter holidays, he said.

However, Dell’Olio pointed out that these statistics refer only to the eastern province of Buenos Aires, the most populous province in the country, and were compiled from only three health clinics, without including seriously injured victims who died up to a month after the accident.

The expert was sceptical about the 40 percent decrease in road accident deaths in 2009 reported by the Buenos Aires city authorities. “These are partial data from the Federal Police that are incomplete because not enough time has passed to measure the results properly,” he said.

Another expert, Eduardo Bertotti of the non-governmental Institute for Road Safety and Education (ISEV), told IPS that fatality statistics “have no scientific validity if they only cover a short time period,” and that proper comparison requires a full year’s data.

Bertotti said that road accident fatalities in Argentina “have plateaued at a very high level” in recent years. “What has increased is the number of serious accidents and seriously injured victims, rather than deaths,” he said.

This suggests that persuading people to use passive safety elements, like seat belts, has been relatively successful, which may have increased the number of seriously injured accident victims who formerly would have died, he speculated.

In Bertotti’s view, greater use of seat belts and helmets “is not a result of better road safety education” among drivers and passengers, but of road inspections and fines imposed on those who break the rules.

Even so, Bertotti regards the creation of the government road safety agency as “very positive,” as there is now a “responsible authority in charge” of shaping real public policies, which previously “were only empty proclamations.”

ANSV received a 30-million dollar loan from the World Bank in April “to contribute to the reduction of road traffic injuries and fatalities” in Argentina, where the death toll for road accidents is 18.7 per 100,000 population, “one of the highest in the region,” according to the multilateral institution.

In addition to this loan, the government agency is funded, by law, by one percent of the value of insurance policies. But in ISEV’s view, the state should commit an appropriation from its annual national budget, in order to demonstrate its political will to stop the carnage.

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