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I barely noticed the first crash. Driving the new hire car from the airport, the rain was pouring down on the highway, spray everywhere, a high risk of aquaplaning, and we were still on the outskirts of town, with traffic lights, cross-roads, bus stops, shops and lots of local motorbikes and pedestrians moving along and across the highway. I tried to keep my eyes on those parts of the road not under water. Uruguayans know that a road is a risky place in a thunderstorm, so they prudently accelerate to minimize their exposure time to hazardous conditions.

The first crash was a mere shunt, two or three cars by the roadside in a pool of water, the occupants well enough to get out to inspect the damage. It was nothing like the first crash we saw on the same road years before, just fifteen minutes out of the airport on a sunny day, with a distraught family surrounding their insensate child lying on the central reservation, waiting for an ambulance. Seat belts were not often used then, and even not always now. People still sit on deckchairs on the back of trucks, sipping mate, and taking the air.

It was about an hour later, as the rain was beginning to abate, that the second crash came into view. The driver, plainly having been intent in getting to town promptly to avoid the storm, had managed to skid off the opposite carriageway, ploughing into the wide and lush grass of the central reservation, and with great skill hitting the only tall floodlight within his reach, thus comprehensively destroying his car. The scene was tidy, the ambulance gone, the car still wrapped round its terminal destination.

In Uruguay, choices about the speed and direction of vehicles are considered highly personal matters. Admittedly, there are speed restriction signs, and other cautionary exhortations about the value of not leaving distraught orphans, but those have little relevance when the priority is to get to the beach. Perhaps it would be wrong to concentrate too much on speedy motorists. Those are fairly predictable, and will chose the lane which gives them fastest access to the next available space in the flow of traffic.

It is the thoughtful ones that cause the most danger. They tend to stop without warning, perhaps to look at the view or greet a friend, or just to pause at the side of the road for philosophical reasons. Not entirely satisfied with this hiatus, they start out slowly, perhaps half-straddling the tarmac before regaining the highway proper, building up speed and courage to re-join the serious traffic, or deciding to move gently to another place of contemplation. There are still some very old cars and lorries carrying impossible loads, and large families, but they are a minority now.

It was some days later, in the bright sunshine of a sunny morning, while walking to the local shop to buy our breakfast pastries, that we came upon the third crash. The shore road has a central reservation with oleanders punctuated every roughly 100 metres by crossing places so that cars from local roads can get onto the shore road. Two young guys, urgently needing to get somewhere, sped along the shore road with great determination, and chose to drove full speed into the protruding curb of the central reservation, a stout construction of deeply placed granite curb stones. This strategic decision partially removed their front left wheel, so the vehicle rose to the occasion, the entire left side sliding along the raised reservation, both cutting and gouging a long strip of municipal lawn.

The recovery vehicle was already on the scene, trying to solve the leverage puzzle of removing the vehicle onto an inclined trailer without it falling apart on the road. The guys seemed sober, and only mildly perturbed. The nearby beer can on the road was probably a coincidence. Police restricted themselves to waving away passing traffic. Sometime over the winter the municipality will deal with the curb, probably.

Wealthy, well-organized and clever countries lose 4 to 5 citizens per 100,000 per year to road accidents, mostly by requiring seat-belts, child restraints, helmets for motorcyclists, and imposing speed and alcohol restrictions. Europe does well, UK at 3.1, eastern and southern Europe less so at roughly 8. USA 12.4 and Uruguay 13.4 are roughly 4 times more dangerous than the UK. Africa at 26.6 is over 8 times more lethal than the UK.

You can rank countries by road fatalities here:

Road usage is a test of intelligence and personality. Getting safely from one place to another while controlling the most powerful device on sale to the public is more demanding than it may seem. An average 120 horsepower engine (90 Kw) is 30 times more powerful than a top-level kitchen blender, and at least that much more powerful than the power available to factory workers during the industrial revolution. Newtonian equations are relatively simple, but the car puts the power down the power on only four small patches of the road, and judgments about road conditions and traffic risks vary considerably. Cars worldwide are improving in safety, so different death rates are mostly behavioural in origin. Cars have pretty well standardised controls, so the cognitive loads of driving are uniform and low, though the behaviour of other drivers varies. In Africa, better roads often have higher death rates, since higher speeds are possible.

Although countries differ widely in intelligence and scholastic attainments, there will always be some people who doubt the validity of these assessments. Perhaps road fatalities are a better test of national skill levels. When Army recruits intelligence test results are compared with traffic accidents in middle age, duller drivers in Australia crash three times more often (O’Toole 1990).

An unconsidered life may not be worth living, but unconsidered driving will certainly be life-shortening.

• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Traffic Fatalities, Uruguay 
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  1. res says:

    I think you really need to normalize by distance traveled. The Wikipedia table you reference gives three versions of the fatality rates:
    Road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants per year[5][2], Road fatalities per 100,000 motor vehicles[5][2], Road fatalities per 1 billion vehicle-km[6]

    I think by distance is the best metric, but the data are much less available than for the other two.

    The US is much worse than the UK for all three variants. I wonder why. This might provide some clues.

  2. Considered that, then rejected it, my argument being that I was not looking at the safety of road travel per se, but the actual numbers of people killed by road travel in any nation. Driving long distances is a choice best avoided.

    Hey, I agree, but wanted to keep it very simple.

    • Replies: @res
    , @Anonymous
    , @Lot
    , @Freiriger
  3. res says:
    @James Thompson

    That makes sense. I think making good simplicity/complexity choices in your presentation is a big part of what makes you such a good blogger. As is probably obvious, I tend to err on the side of complexity.

  4. dearieme says:

    Various aspects of American life are explicable by the conjecture that Americans tend to dislike each other.

    • Replies: @Stephen Dodge
    , @MBlanc46
  5. Anonymous[276] • Disclaimer says:

    Uruguayans know that a road is a risky place in a thunderstorm, so they prudently accelerate to minimize their exposure time to hazardous conditions.

    Haha, nice.

  6. Anonymous[375] • Disclaimer says:
    @James Thompson

    Driving long distances is the norm in the US.

    Driving in the US and the UK really isn’t comparable. The scale is very different. 2 lane roads are the norm in the UK, and your motorways, what we in the US call highways and freeways, are quite small 4 lane roads in comparison to our massive highways. Also people drive smaller cars in the UK. People don’t drive pickups and SUVs in the UK, while they’re common in the US and among the most popular cars. Even your lorries are small in comparison to the 18 wheeler semi trucks in the US.

  7. Lot says:
    @James Thompson

    The considerations go both ways.

    1. US drivers have bigger and faster cars
    2. US has cheaper cars due to no VAT and very competitive local and imported markets
    3. US has cheaper gas
    4. US is lower density

    On the other hand, our cities are newer and most of us live in areas planned out after cars became widespread. It’s just easier to drive safely in new suburbs than cramptes narrow old Euro cities with pedestrians, bikes, lanes narrowing etc.

    So the USA has more driving, more people who are lower IQ people driving who couldn’t afford to elsewhere, but also safer modern and less crowded roads.

    There’s really no way to do a completely fair comparison of driver quality. I will say that driving in Middle America feels safer than in other countries.

    • Replies: @Colin Wright
  8. Not sure what it is like in Uruguay these days but I think in Argentina, the biggest problem is an inability to separate driving from other day to day actions.

    Riding a motorcycle while on facebook.
    Riding a motorcycle while eating or drinking mate.
    I will not be in the least bit surprised when I one day pass someone riding a motorcycle while peeling potatoes for dinner.

  9. Freiriger says:
    @James Thompson

    “I was not looking at the safety of road travel per se, but the actual numbers of people killed by road travel in any nation.”

    Looking at the level of the Country, with no further controls, is far too abstract to be useful. As with many questions involving comparison between countries, I did the first thing I always do and looked up US results by State, and discovered that it ranges from 4.3 to 24.7, which is quite similar to the range of countries and continents you identified in the article. Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York are between 4.3-5.7, while Maine is at 11.7, just slightly less than the National Average. Wyoming comes in last at 24.7

    Do Maine and Wyoming really fail at being “wealthy, organized, and clever” states? Wyoming is ranked 20th in income. Maine is 32nd. Both are top-10 for low crime. Yet Maine is average for traffic fatalities and Wyoming is dead last.

    Meanwhile, I notice a strong correlation between road fatalities and population density:

    “Driving long distances is a choice best avoided.” This is a massive over-simplification. There are valid reasons to drive long distances. Valid economic reasons, if nothing else. Someone has to live in Kansas (12.2) if we’re going to farm the extremely fertile land there. These questions are a far more substantial trade-off than “arrive at your destination 2 minutes sooner by speeding in the rain and incurring a massively increased risk of a fatal accident” and it is most definitely wrong to simply chalk rural living to stupidity.

    I think if you really want to look at country’s driving safety as a proxy for being organized and clever, it is necessary to control for the essential risks. People in the UK and New York can survive without driving. People in Wyoming can’t.

  10. @dearieme

    I spent 20 years in the (American) military (7 years active, the rest in the reserves) and I have spent a lot – well, not a lot, but some – well I spent maybe not a lot, but at least some time with American troops and English and Scots troops overseas. The Scots were the ones with the most dislike showing on their ugly faces, the ugly Americans and ugly English were a lot more friendly to each other.

    I am not sure what you have, young dearieme, against Americans. Are you considered normal among your peer group? Did an American try and seduce your wife? If so, I apologize on his or her behalf.

    You seem like an academic type, well your academic folks are just as phony as ours and vice versa, for the most part. At least as far as I can tell.

    Feel free to keep quiet about why you are such a weird bigot, but if you have an interesting explanation, well, I would like to hear it.

    • Replies: @Stephen Dodge
  11. @Lot

    ‘On the other hand, our cities are newer and most of us live in areas planned out after cars became widespread. It’s just easier to drive safely in new suburbs than cramptes narrow old Euro cities with pedestrians, bikes, lanes narrowing etc.’

    There’s the understatement of the day.

  12. Anonymous[107] • Disclaimer says:

    The worst driving I have ever seen is in Vietnam. It is so bad that hardly anyone walks anywhere. Safety does not compute. Red lights are ignored. Motorcycles go everywhere, drive directly into incoming traffic, and speed along sidewalks. Riders text while driving. I saw one idiot sauntering on a motorcycle down a busy sidewalk texting away, with pedestrians on either side. Drivers cannot think more than 10 seconds ahead. Many times I tried to get taxi-drivers to shift into another lane for a turn up ahead but it just did not compute. Then at the last minute they would try to get through a maze of motorcycles. Bus drivers stay in the fast lane and cannot stop at many stops for the traffic. On the highway, bigger vehicles spend as much time in the opposing lane as in the correct one and regularly force smaller vehicles onto the shoulder. No one seems to care. In a Western nation, locals would be screaming at the police to enforce the law.

  13. Realist says:

    One of the beliefs in safe traval is that air travel is the safest. This is based on number of miles traveled. This is an unreal basis…it should be based on frequency of travel episode, since most auto travel is for relative short trips and a large number of auto accidents happen within 20 miles from home. If people traveled by air as often as by auto. It would be the most unsafe form of travel…by far.

    • Replies: @James Thompson
  14. @Realist

    Yes, casualties per hour traveled by car and plane are similar (and low). However, if you have to travel long distances, fly.

    • Agree: Realist
    • Replies: @iffen
  15. iffen says:
    @James Thompson

    However, if you have to travel long distances, fly.

    But your chance of surviving a major car crash is pretty good, but your chance of surviving a major plane crash is …

  16. In advanced countries there are trains.

  17. Yet more evidence that the replacement of driver airbags with Parish Spikes would reduce the road toll (and would tilt the remaining toll in eugenic ways)… which is more evidence that road and traffic policies do not have road-toll reduction as their primary objective.

    A Parish Spike in this context is not a flophouse for tramps (as mentioned in Orwell) but rather an updated version of the famous Tullock Spike.

    Tullock advocated (only partially in jest) that one certain way to reduce road tolls at very low cost, was to mandate a spike that protrudes from the steering wheel and impales the driver in the event of a severe enough collision.

    The Parish version replaces the airbag with a spike housed in the steering column, that deploys (fatally, for the driver) in the event of a frontal collision that occurs with enough force to kill a pedestrian. Parish spikes strictly-dominate Tullock spikes, because there is no risk that the spike kills the driver dies in events outside their control (e.g., being rear-ended).

    Making driving safer reduces perceived risk; it enables drivers to ‘trade away’ the extra perceived safety and to obtain a new personal safety/excitement equilibrium that reduces the impact of new safety features.

    By contrast, if every driver knew that they would die in the event of an impact to the front of their vehicle at 20mph, they would take a great deal of care where they put the nose of the vehicle.

    This is the well understood ‘behavioural’ gap between ‘engineering’ evaluations of policy design, and economic evaluations – and is part of why economics is termed the ‘dismal science’.

    For example: when driver-only seatbelts were made compulsory, economists predicted an increase in passenger and pedestrian deaths: to a decent economists it was obvious, and they were right.

    Policy changed, but in the wrong direction: they mandated passenger seat-belts, and consigned more pedestrians and cyclists to die from incompetent drivers. Sure enough, every 4 fatal vehicle accidents involves a dead pedestrian or cyclist.

    Since stupid people consistently over-estimate their competence, Parish Spikes would also be eugenic; at present, road fatalities and serious injuries include a large number of cyclists, pedestrians and other non-drivers.

    Driver-caused cyclist deaths are especially dysgenic: cyclists tend to higher-income; have longer expectational horizons; and are better-educated. (Let’s stipulate that pedestrians and passengers will be average, on average).

    So fuckwitted drivers disproportionately kill people smarter than themselves. Those fuckers deserve a spike through the chest.

    • Replies: @Parfois1
  18. @Stephen Dodge

    I did not expect an answer, but remember – people like you and me (and Professor Thompson) are very fortunate people, able to express what we think in clear ways.

    Anyway, be grateful that I thought enough of you to try and communicate. That is not nothing.

  19. MBlanc46 says:

    What would you know about it.

  20. Parfois1 says:

    You could find many statistical correlations from road fatalities but I think finding intelligence – your hobby-horse – as one of them is not very intelligent.

    The one that stares you in the face is social development ( sort of “civilization”) when you compare Europe with all other regions which, by the way, is also replicated within Europe.

    Social development includes many factors, from the material conditions (cars, roads, traffic density, purchasing power, etc), to regulatory systems and practices and the personalities of the drivers as well as cultural traits. The more social conscious are the safest drivers.

    Reminds me of the thinking that goes on in the minds of the hectic Porsche driver and the staid Volvo driver at an intersection at 2.00 am when the red light came on. The Porsche driver reluctantly stopped because he would be fined if he didn’t; the Volvo driver stopped because it was safer.

    By the way, I enjoy reading a clever turn of phrase, of which you are a very good wordsmith, but sometimes using local colloquialisms carelessly are off-putting, e.g. shore road (main road? highway?) and many others. How about consistent proper English or US English?

    • Replies: @dearieme
  21. Parfois1 says:

    So fuckwitted drivers disproportionately kill people smarter than themselves. Those fuckers deserve a spike through the chest.

    I agree with the spirit of your thrust, like a ghost spike. On the other hand, I don’t think it is very smart for cyclists to compete with cars for road space. Once, as a motorcycle rider, I was thrown out of the roadway by a truck and flown off about 10 metres. I got the message and got rid of the bike. It pains me deeply knowing that my daughter rides a bike to work on busy roads because of a moral imperative imposed on her concern for safety and self-preservation. Many of our kids were sold off by the modern fads of “progressivism” and similar heresies passing off as higher education.

  22. dearieme says:

    I suggest that a “shore read” is either a road that runs along a shore or a road that takes you to the shore. Or even a road that takes you to the shore and then changes direction and runs along the shore.

  23. Parfois1 says:

    I suggest that a “shore read” is either a road that runs along a shore or a road that takes you to the shore. Or even a road that takes you to the shore and then changes direction and runs along the shore.

    Thank you. Your suggestion comes intuitively attractive to mind but the context rejects it though – to me anyway. I presume to be a regional lexical idiom as there are many similar ones in England such as “turnpike roads”, “trunk roads”, “county roads” etc.

    • Replies: @dearieme
    , @Philip Owen
  24. dearieme says:

    “there are many similar ones in England”: aye, but he’s writing about Uruguay.

    Where I grew up we had neither turnpike road nor county road. On the other hand we did have a high road, a low road, and a railway company road.

    We live now on a Roman Road, though I’ve read lately that it was an Iron Age road before it was Romanised. Whether it was ever a Bronze Age road or a Neolithic road I don’t know. But my wife did find a stone arrowhead in our back garden recently – could it have been a Mesolithic track?

    • Replies: @Parfois1
    , @Philip Owen
  25. Parfois1 says:

    “there are many similar ones in England”: aye, but he’s writing about Uruguay.

    I know it’s about Uruguay. My query stems from the peculiarity of applying (I suppose) a quaint English idiomatic expression to a far away place. Yes, I’m aware too of the old habit of naming streets and roads from some identifying local characteristic or landmark (factory, bridge, church, hill, mill, etc.), but of course I assumed he was referring to a type of road. Anyway it was a minor quibble,similar to using “curb” for the expected English “kerb” and other idiosyncrasies.

    Regarding the archeological treasure in the backyard, the more likely place to find that one is in a battlefield and wonder whether she might find richer harvests digging the ground rather than tilling it!!!


    • Replies: @dearieme
  26. dearieme says:

    I used to visit a history blog. Each autumn I’d mention that we lived on a Roman Road and invite people to come and excavate our back garden.

    I’m afraid that the ruse of trying to get other people to do our autumn digging for us was too transparent – nobody fell for it.

    • Replies: @iffen
  27. BingoBoingo says: • Website

    I’m living in Uruguay. What amazes me are the ever present hazard buses present in Montevideo. Bus crashes that produce what would be mass casualty incidents in any other context might get a mention on the news.

    Yes, the Uruguayos drive dumb at times. These are a passive people with a “things keep happening to me” outlook on life and a rapidly increasing number of cars on the road. So many chinese plastic things. I can’t give an exact number how many of these tiny things I saw slam into the concrete light pole at the corner of Luis Lamas and Marco Bruto when I was staying in a hostel after first arriving here, but there were solo acts as well as pairs collisions. The pole always won, but the cars always crumpled well enough to keep the folks inside alive.

    The “bondi” busses though. Big clumsy things hauling ass all day long. Even with the drivers being “professionals”, shit happens and when it hits the fan, it is a mess.

    • Replies: @James Thompson
  28. iffen says:

    Perhaps those who read history could appreciate the archaeological potential of dirt beside a Roman road, but they were also likely to have read Tom Sawyer.

    • Replies: @dearieme
  29. @BingoBoingo

    There were always interesting crashes on Tomas Diago when I was a child.

    The Jewish Problem

    It was a good crash, audible from within our house, so we ran out onto the street to
    watch the argument. It was a head-on collision. A Model T Ford flivver had driven into a
    smaller, more modern family car, with a smaller family man driving it. The flivver driver,
    against all expectation, was of a better class, and not the penniless pensioner I expected.
    He was taller, younger, in a very smart suit, and had slightly floppy, well cut hair.

    Flivvers had begun to be cool, and worth restoring for men about town. Sadly, there was
    not too much damage to either car, though the modern one was worse off, so there wasn’t
    much of a story to tell anyone later.

    I had arrived just as they were discussing the meritsof each other’s driving. The small family man, clearly already browbeaten, made the mild observation that perhaps the flivver’s brakes, not withstanding the skill of Henry Ford some decades ago, were not up to modern standards. At this remark, the taller perpetrator vented his rage: “The brakes on this car are perfect and anyone can try them and see for themselves, you filthy Jew”.

    Even as a ten year old, I could see that this was a thoroughly odd diversion, a knight’s
    move in the accuser’s thought processes. It made sense to discuss brakes, and certainly
    eyesight, but I could not see why religion should be involved. I knew, however, that
    “Jew” was often used as a street insult, and when I had asked a boy why he had said this,
    he replied that he did so because it was the Jews that had crucified Jesus. I felt that, whilst
    reprehensible, it was an absurdly long time ago, and it seemed a far fetched accusation in
    present day disputes. I did not know if the small driver was a Jew, nor at that stage did I
    know that Jesus was a Jew, though having seen his picture I would have doubted it,
    because he looked like a Protestant to me.

    In fact, I had no idea what made a Jew a Jew. I certainly knew that, as a mere onlooker, I was sticking up for the victim of a bad argument, the butt of an illegitimate imputation, but even in this fervour of fair play, had I been accused of being a Jew myself, I would have immediately, and absolutely correctly, stoutly denied it.

    • Replies: @iffen
  30. dearieme says:

    Hats off. I’ve not read Tom and Huck since I was but a lad. To my taste they are the high point of American literature – though I do rate Catch 22 and I thought The Catcher in the Rye very funny.

    What am I forgetting? Lots, probably. I know: some SF , though the only tale I can remember by name was the moving Flowers for Algernon. Weep, sob.

    I do hope that Doc T knows F for A.

    • Replies: @iffen
  31. Of course. Algernon lives in our minds, though it was probably wrong.

  32. iffen says:

    Thanks for jogging my memory on Algernon. I once had knowledge of the book and it is one that I should have read but didn’t. I could tell you that I will try to read it, but I would know that writing such a sentence would be a lie. The thrill seeking part of my personality has me in its firm, powerful grasp and will not allow me to give up the horror, the mystery, the surrealism, the fantasy and the unlimited imagined worlds of non-fiction for a book of fiction. When your soul has been tortured and incited by a deep swig of the hard stuff, it is well nigh impossible to go back to tea or coffee.

    “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

    RIP Mark Twain

  33. iffen says:
    @James Thompson

    The Jewish Problem

    I respectfully suggest that we should use The Jewish Question rather than The Jewish Problem. I know it has a bad lineage from Hitler times but we need to power on through that legacy.Problem presupposes quite a bit. This bit of insight came to me when I was writing about The Race Problem and realized that is was properly a question first and problematic (as we said in the olden days) as to problem.

  34. @dearieme

    The Icknield Way? A mammoth migration path formed at the edge of the ice sheet.

    • Replies: @dearieme
  35. @Parfois1

    The Coast Road sounds more natural to me. There’s one near Newcastle that runs to North Shields. ‘Shore’ is a bit weak and local. Some track at the top of a beach.

    • Replies: @dearieme
  36. dearieme says:
    @Philip Owen

    “shore” could be a translation of the Spanish-language name in Uruguay.

    I add: where I grew up I think we’d always have said “shore” rather than “coast” for a road that ran along the shore. On the other hand I’d probably have used “coast road” when we lived in Oz.

  37. dearieme says:
    @Philip Owen

    I suppose we could take our arrow head in to the County Archaeologist and ask for an opinion. I don’t think we will though. I am leery of involving Government in my life if I’m not obliged to. Their incentives are not mine.

    Anyway they seem quite busy at the moment.

    • Replies: @Philip Owen
  38. dearieme says:
    @James Thompson

    Google translate gave me the English translation as “rambla”. However I think the comments it makes are pretty clear:

    Avenida o paseo que bordea la costa de un río, lago o mar.

    Examples of rambla
    Montevideo tiene una rambla de casi 20 km .

    So there we have it.

    • Replies: @James Thompson
  39. @dearieme

    I lived in Litlington. So not quite A14 territory. Dig a hole anywhere around there and you will find archaeology.

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