There are worse things than tsunamis

Jan 9, 2005
I have great sympathy for the many people affected by the recent tsunamis.
I also think it is great that people throughout the world rally in the wake
of such disasters to provide help. What distresses me is that other even
more pernicious causes of death and tragedy persist without nearly as much
attention, sympathy, or most importantly energy devoted to prevention.

Every time a disaster like 9/11/01 or the 12/26/04 natural disaster
captures worldwide attention and energy I feel compelled to try to make
people realize that there are less sensational, less news-worthy problems
that are actually much more serious. The worst such problem, to me, is
automobile/traffic accidents. (Though there are several others as well.)

2,500-3,000 people died from terrorists on 9/11/01, the largest number of
people to die on US soil in a single day since the Civil War. Horrible.
MORE THAN 10-15 TIMES as many people die each and every year, year after
year, in automobile accidents in the US alone. Roughly 45,000 per year.
[See the CDC website: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/lcod.htm]
You are so much more likely to be killed in an auto accident that it isn't
even worth worrying about how to prevent becoming a victim of terrorists.

The 12/26/04 disaster death toll is on the order of 150,000. Truly tragic.
Worldwide traffic fatality estimates by the WHO and World Bank:
1.2 MILLION(!) per year. Think about that. 1,200,000 people EVERY YEAR.
That's more than 3,000 people (more than 9/11) every day. And the number is
rising quickly. Traffic fatalities are now the leading cause of death in
the developing world due to a "perfect plague" combination of conditions.
[See the NIH: http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/members/2004/112-11/spheres.html]
(They are also the leading cause of death in the US for those aged 1-45.)

Yes, the traffic fatalities are spread out across different days, whereas
150,000 people is a lot to die in a single day. But such natural disasters
come along only once in several decades. Only 4 earthquakes of comparable
magnitude have happened in the last 100 years, and only this one produced
such great loss of life. Traffic accidents keep happening, over and over.

Traffic accidents strike suddenly and without warning. They are brutal.
They affect, and kill, many who are in no way at fault or irresponsible.
Much has been made of the fact that the tsunamis were larglely
indiscriminant killers, killing rich vacationers and poor villagers alike,
killing without regard to race, age, gender, temperment, etc. The same is
true of traffic accidents. Neither strike all groups in exactly uniform
proportions, but both strike without discrimination, cutting across
national borders, ethnic borders, socio-economic classes, etc.

But many traffic accidents could be prevented or their consequences
minimized worldwide in a number of different ways: more crashworthy cars
that protect the occupants better, cars designed to do less damage to
riders in less protected vehicles like bicycles, rickshaws, etc. and less
damage to pedestrians (a fight the European NCAP program, www.euroncap.com,
is waging single-handedly), better emergency response infrastructure
especially in the developing world, better road design and upkeep including
signs and sigsals especially in the developing world, better adoption rates
of helmet wearing by users of bicycles, rickshaws, etc., better enforcement
of traffic laws especially in the developing world, more social stigma
attached to reckless driving including but not limited to drunk driving,
etc. Many of these improvements would be easy if only the world cared
enough to pressure car makers, governments, and drivers, to change.


I've heard people say that the magnitude of the 12/26/04 tsunami disaster
is unparalleled. I beg to differ. It is paralleled, and in fact exceeded,
each and every year, year after year, by a single type of event that could
be rendered significantly less dangerous by the kind of worldwide attention
paid to sensational disasters. People should resist the natural tendency to
become complacent about the types of tragedies that are commonplace.

There are worse things than tsunamis. And there are things more deserving
of preventative attention, energy, and funds. I wish the world would not
let its compassion be largely directed by the sensation-targeting media and
wake up more to the worse ongoing tragedies happening every day.

And I hope that people with resources or the authority to direct resources
can apply good judgement, innovation, careful planning, and patience in
directing the resources for doing good to help combat all of the most
severe tragedies in the world.

-Karl Pfleger