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.