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.
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.
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).