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Submitted by James Habyarimana and Billy Jack, Georgetown University on
We welcome Paricio Marquez’s efforts to highlight the enormous health and economic costs of road accidents in the developing world. Attention to this global curse is long overdue, as evidenced by Mr Marquez’s observation that “death on wheels” is second only to HIV/AIDS as the leading cause of premature death among young men in sub-Saharan Africa. It is crucial to figure out, as the title of Mr Marquez’s blog promises, “how to prevent it”. Sadly, this promise is not fulfilled. Solutions to development problems are menacingly difficult to discover, and jargon can quickly substitute for specific actions, particularly when those actions involve large, long-term investments in the context of limited resources and competing demands. But calling for a “safe system approach” and for governments to “painstakingly build institutions” seems unlikely to save many passengers or pedestrians any time soon. We don’t even know what these terms mean, in practice. How many times have developing countries been urged to build institutions? While some econometric evidence suggests they are important, is there nothing else that can be done in the short run to reduce deaths and injuries? Cooperating with each other seems like a good start, but again, exactly what the actionable content of adopting “shared value” principles is, we don’t know. Sure, public goods such as safe roads could be financed from a variety of sources, including private equity, but is it simply a resource constraint that is killing so many people? The safety record of Nairobi’s new Chinese-financed super highways so far leaves one suspicious that private financing will automatically bring higher safety standards. Of course there is no reason to believe it will. While we wait for countries to get rich, and for the quality of their roads and vehicles to improve in parallel with the quality of their water systems, schools, and golf courses, are there cheap solutions that can be adopted in the short term that, conditional on the physical environment in which people commute and travel, can alter the behavioral landscape? We believe that behavior change is essential to achieve drastic reductions in road deaths in the short term. But don’t take it from us. When the manager of a matatu fleet operating in rural Kenya was asked by one of us what the primary causes of road accidents were, she remarked, “The roads don’t cause accidents, the weather doesn’t cause accidents, and lack of maintenance doesn’t cause accidents. Drivers cause accidents. They can slow down when the roads are bad, they can pull over when the rain pours, and they can refuse to drive when their vehicle is unsafe.” If it is always the driver’s fault, should we just train them all to higher levels of proficiency? Maybe, but that too would be expensive. Poor places have low levels of all kinds of capital – physical as well as human – and augmenting either of them takes time and resources. Instead, finding innovative ways to nudge drivers toward better driving practices, to induce them, without necessarily relying on heavy-handed law enforcement (which, as the author rightly acknowledges, is often corrupted), to internalize some of the costs they impose on others, could be a useful way of grasping at some low-hanging fruit on the road safety tree: that is, cheap interventions with large effects. We encourage experimentation in this area, and rigorous evaluation where feasible. James Habyarimana and Billy Jack, Georgetown University