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

MEXICO: Road Accidents Top Cause of Death Among Young

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Nov 19 2010 (IPS) - If Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg were interested in making a sequel to his 1996 film “Crash”, in which the main characters derive sexual pleasure from car crashes, Mexico could be an ideal location, due to the large number of traffic accidents in this country.

“We have a major problem in terms of road safety,” said Martha Híjar, a researcher with the non-governmental Fundación Entornos, a non-profit civil association dedicated to studying solutions for health problems generated by urban growth.

“Many of the prevention measures that have been used in Mexico have been imported from other countries, and are heavily focused on drivers, while ignoring actors like pedestrians and cyclists,” she told IPS.

Road accidents are the leading cause of death in Mexico among people between the ages of five and 35, with an annual average of more than 20,000 deaths, 25 percent of whom are pedestrians and cyclists, according to the National Council for Accident Prevention (CONAPRA).

In this Latin American country, 2,050 people are hospitalised daily and 110 are left permanently disabled as a result of traffic accidents, running up a total cost of 10 billion dollars a year for the Health Ministry.

“Education and raising public awareness on road safety are essential,” Miguel Guzmán, assistant director of the Centro de Experimentación y Seguridad Vial (Cesvi México), a non-governmental road safety centre that is participating in the activities for Sunday Nov. 21, World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims, told IPS.

The day has been commemorated the third Sunday in November every year since 1993, at the initiative of RoadPeace, a national charity for road crash victims in Britain, and was adopted by the United Nations in 2005.

Traffic accidents claim the lives of 142,250 people in Latin America and the Caribbean each year and injure five million, according to this year’s regional report on road safety by the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO).

The report also points out that while three-quarters of people who die in traffic accidents in the United States and Canada are motor vehicle occupants, more than half of all victims in Latin America and the Caribbean are “vulnerable road users” like pedestrians, motorcyclists or cyclists.

The risk factors mentioned by the report include the use of alcohol and the failure to use seatbelts or helmets.

A recent study on “risk factors detected in drivers evaluated by Cesvi México”, meanwhile, lists a dozen causes of road accidents, from alcohol and drug use to excessive speed and bad driving habits.

The government of conservative President Felipe Calderón launched a National Road Safety Programme in 2007, aimed at reducing the number of accident victims and strengthening road safety education.

And in 2009, CONAPRA presented the Mexican Road Safety Initiative, to curb accidents by means of the use of alcohol breathalysers by inspectors and measures to increase the use of seatbelts and helmets.

Mexico, which has the fifth highest rate of traffic accidents in Latin America and the second largest population, could well belong in the Museum of Accidents curated by French philosopher, social critic and urbanist Paul Virilio — an exhibition on catastrophes as a consequence of technological progress.

More than 20 million motor vehicles circulate in this country of 108 million people, including six million cars in greater Mexico City, which is home to more than 20 million people.

Although “the mortality rate has dropped in the last 10 years due to a number of factors, there has been little assessment of the measures that have been adopted,” said Híjar, who is also a researcher at the National Institute of Public Health. “What we need is for all of the actors to sit down and see what each one is doing. The efforts are fragmented.”

The National Institute of Public Health and the Fundación Entornos host the secretariat of the Road Traffic Injuries Research Network (RTIRN), an international partnership of researchers studying the impact and causes of traffic injuries, and possible prevention measures, in low- and middle-income countries since 1999.

“We want people to know the risks and to provide them with information on what they should do, and how to act appropriately,” said Guzmán, whose organisation has produced a video on the dangers of not wearing a helmet. “There are no campaigns on these aspects; it’s a question of raising awareness among the population and changing the culture.”

The U.N. declared 2010-2020 the Decade of Action for Road Safety, and Mexico has assumed the challenge of preventing 60,000 road traffic deaths over the next 10 years.

The PAHO report states that “Those who are most affected are generally the most vulnerable (pedestrians, motorcyclists, and bicyclists) and, in most cases, the poorest. These victims, mostly men and youths, have more difficulty accessing healthcare services when they are injured and are therefore less likely to fully recuperate and return to work or school.”

It adds, furthermore, that traffic deaths and disabilities often leave families with no way to support themselves, and thus contribute to a “cycle of poverty.”

The report by the regional office of the World Health Organisation recommends the adoption of laws that address the top risk factors for traffic deaths and injuries — speeding, drunk driving, and the use of seatbelts, helmets, and child safety seats — in an integrated fashion; awareness-raising campaigns on traffic safety issues; and policies promoting public transportation and nonmotorised transport.

Mexico will host the second Ibero-American Road Safety Congress May 12-13, 2011, which will address issues like prevention, promotion of road safety education, and medical care for accident victims.

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