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Synchronicity: traffic, vegetables, and the world’s big, mundane problems

May 20, 2009

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Via their blog, my colleagues Nick MacDonald and Anna Young note an interesting study:

Traffic accidents in the developing world kill as many people each year as malaria and cause twice as many deaths as war and other violence combined. James Habyarimana and William Jack tried a novel approach to reduce this deadly toll in an experiment in Kenya. They posted signs in a random sample of 1,000 minibuses encouraging passengers to speak up and criticize reckless driving. The result: insurance claims for the sample fell by as much as two-thirds, and claims involving injury or death fell by one-half.

I noticed a little synchronicity between this study and a recent one I saw about Portland, Oregon, Mercy Corps’ hometown. The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) notes that in 2008 Portland had the lowest number of traffic fatalities since 1925 — part of a twenty-plus year trend in declining traffic fatalities. The improvement in traffic deaths in Portland is due to very different factors than in Kenya (PBOT cites programs that encourage walking and cycling). But I’m struck by three truths that sometimes escape our notice:

Some problems truly are global.

Every year, more than a million people die in automobile collisions, and as many as 24 million are injured. In the U.S., traffic fatalities number about 37 thousand.

The solutions might not be quite as universal.

For countries like Kenya, limited infrastructure and driver education contribute most to the rate of traffic accidents. Reducing traffic accidents in these places requires improving roads and signage, and promoting comprehensive driver’s education and testing.

Wealthy countries like the U.S. are victims of their own success: roads and cars are so safe that few people transport themselves by any other means. On the one hand, more road miles mean more traffic deaths, simply as a statistical artifact. But our roads lack natural speed and attention controls present in places like Nairobi: pedestrians, cyclists, mopeds, tractors, beasts of burden. Portland is finding that by encouraging some of these traditional means of transportation has a positive side effect for motorists: it encourages us to drive safer.

Sometimes the big problems are the mundane ones.

Every other year or so, we whip ourselves into a small panic over new and exotic ways to die: SARS, Avian Flu, Swine Flu. Spectacular deaths like shark attacks grab headlines. Violent conflicts and natural disasters attract our attention. But the real work of making life better for millions of people is strikingly mundane: clean water, civil society, economic development. Maintaining this boring stuff makes life better for millions of people. Selling these ideas to our donors is like selling vegetables: everyone knows they’re good for you but no one eats enough of them. Our donors’ responses to emergencies are inspiring and heartwarming, but the hard work of making the world better is like eating your vegetables: it happens every day and with little glory.