The slaughter of pedestrians in El Salvador

El Salvador is one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a pedestrian.
La Prensa reported recent government figures which show that pedestrians, not drivers or passengers, are the most frequent victims on the roads of El Salvador.

In the first eight months of 2005, 959 persons were killed in traffic accidents in El Salvador. Of these, almost sixty percent (570) were pedestrians. Among pedestrians, persons over 60 years of age were most likely to be the victims, and the highest rate of accidents were in the metropolitan areas of San Salvador and Santa Ana.

After pedestrians, the most frequent fatalities on the road were passengers. If you have traveled in El Salvador, you will not be surprised to learn that the majority of the deaths for passengers were to persons riding in the back of pick-up trucks. Salvadoran streets and highways are crowded with pick-ups filled with passengers in the truck bed. The driver is the least likely to die in a traffic accident in El Salvador.

After reading these statistics, I decided to compare El Salvador's traffic fatality rates to the United States and the rest of the world, as described in a study for the World Bank and a World Health Organization presentation. The average number of traffic fatalities in 2000 was 12 deaths per 100,000 population among world countries. Among low to moderate income countries in Latin America, the average was 16.2. But in El Salvador, it is 26.3 deaths per 100,000 -- more than twice the world average.

El Salvador's pedestrian fatalities total about 950 annually. In the US with a population 45 times as large, according to NTSA statistics only 4882 pedestrians were killed in 2001 by cars. In other words, the pedestrian death rate in El Salvador is 900% of the pedestrian death rate in the US.

El Salvador stacks up very poorly against the rest of the world when looking at pedestrian fatalities as a percentage of total traffic fatalities. As noted before, 60% of traffic fatalities in El Salvador are pedestrians. In the US that percentage is 12%. In a study for the World Bank of 28 industrialized countries, the highest comparable percentage was 46%. Even in highly populated southeast Asian countries, the pedestrian percentage of fatalities does not exceed 50%.

These statistics are a tragedy. Traffic and automobile safety is something about which there is a lot of knowledge in the world. Countries which are every bit as disadvantaged as El Salvador do not have nearly as many pedestrians dying on their roads. While the government of El Salvador may not know how to stop its homicide problem, it could certainly take steps to reduce this source of pain and grief for hundreds of Salvadoran families every year.


Anonymous said…
Having spent several months recovering after being hit by a pick-up truck in El Salvador (as a pedestrian), I can personally attest to the need for improved traffic safety. However, poor safety is not just a bad habit for which people need to be re-educated. Many Salvadorians believe care free attitudes on safety contribute to their standard of living, perhaps even offsetting the sting of poverty. Where cars are scarce, one person per seat-belt implies a lot of people will be left walking. Besides, for kids at least, safety is boring. My children certainly feel deprived when I don’t let them ride in the back of pick-ups with their cousins. Both the other kids and their parents think I’m being over-protective.

Ultimately, I think the problem stems from car-centered urban development patterns in a country that can’t afford it. By this I refer to the proliferation of supermarkets and other stores distant from customers, unwalkable highways, and (though I admit the reasoning seems circular) traffic that runs over pedestrians crossing the street. Why has El Salvador developed this way? A few possible reasons 1) Many Salvadorians have lived in the US and model this lifestyle when the return. 2) Inequality results in just enough people that can afford cars to make this development pattern viable. 3) Crime is so bad that a small neighborhood grocery store is not viable.
Anonymous said…
Wow, fascinating story and shocking statistics. Thanks for this!
Tim said…

I am sure that culture plays a large role. I also think there are steps including re-designing dangerous intersections, safety education, and traffic enforcement, which can probably have a measurable impact on the fatality rate, inspite of the culture. (I have also ridden in the back of pick-ups in El Salvador).
Anonymous said…
As someone who drives a lot in El Salvador, specifically San Salvador, my greatest fear is not being hit by or hitting another car, although these are some of the craziest drivers I´ve ever experienced, but in hitting a pedestrian. Poorly lighted streets, not to mention dark highways outside the city, and a constant flow of people crossing the street at any place in the block or in the highway make it a disaster waiting to happen. There are crossovers on most of the main streets, but these involve climbing and descending stairs, so few use them. Driving here means you never relax or daydream for a minute, because there is always something unusual happening around you. Also if a driver hits a pedestrian, or there is an injury in an automobile accident, the driver goes to prison until the hospital debts are paid, or the family of the deceased comes to an agreement. Most NGO´s legal advice to their staffs here is to stop and offer what aid you can, and then leave the scene before the police arrive, and let the lawyers handle the matter. Salvadoran prisons are not places extranjeros want to spend much time in. It´s a combination of drivers and pedestrians being in a hurry and taking unneccessary chances.
Tim said…
That's pretty scary.
Anonymous said…
My father is 82 years old and still drives every day in San Salvador. He used to be aggressive, swearing, waving hands, and muttering his disgust at other's driving skills. He has since, mellowed. I will never drive in El Salvador-- my dad chauffers me every time I visit. However, I never imagined so many comments on the matter.