There are lots ways to die. There are also lots of people on Planet Earth tracking when and how people die. Two of those people -- Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle -- have compiled much of that data to show us where folks are most prone to die on the road.
The study is called Mortality from Road Crashes in 193 Countries: A Comparison with Other Leading Causes of Death (PDF). The title's a little somber for our tastes, but in fairness, the report deals with a very somber subject, so we'll it slide.
To compile their report, Sivak and Schoettle, who head up the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, pored over fatality statistics published by the World Health Organization in 2008. Though the two were keenly interested in traffic-related deaths, they also took note of fatalities from three other causes: heart disease, malignant neoplasms (shorthand: cancer), and cerebrovascular disease (shorthand: strokes). Then, they mapped that data, calculating the highest and lowest fatality rates associated with each illness, the fatality rates associated with auto accidents, and how the former and latter overlapped.
The good news is that, on average, strokes, heart disease, and cancer are much bigger threats to human beings than car accidents. The bad news is that in some countries, that's not entirely true. In Namibia, for example, you're 53 percent more likely to die in automobile collision than from cancer. And in Qatar, you're more than five times as likely to die in a car accident than from a stroke. You've been warned.
Here are the ten deadliest countries for all four measured causes, with the number of deaths per 100,000 residents in parentheses. Not surprisingly, many of these countries are in the developing world and/or in regions experiencing significant civil conflict.
1. Chad (1717)
2. Guinea-Bissau (1675)
3. Central African Republic (1671)
4. Ukraine (1638)
5. Malawi (1627)
6. Afghanistan (1612)
7. Democratic Republic of the Congo (1607)
8. Somalia (1560)
9. Lesotho (1559)
10. Mozambique (1559)
And here are the deadliest countries with regard to just automobile accidents, along with the number of fatalities per 100,000 residents. Note that there's only one overlapping country, Malawi. ("Congo" refers to the Republic of the Congo, not the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is a completely separate country.)
1. Namibia (45)
2. Thailand (44)
3. Iran (38)
4. Sudan (36)
5. Swaziland (36)
6. Venezuela (35)
7. Congo (34)
8. Malawi (32)
9. Dominican Republic (32)
10. Iraq (32)
And now, to the other end of the chart: the lowest fatality rates from all four causes of death...
183. Nicaragua (439)
184. Costa Rica (434)
185. Saudi Arabia (404)
186. Maldives (380)
187. Syria (364)
188. Oman (331)
189. Brunei Darussalam (310)
190. Bahrain (296)
191. Kuwait (175)
192. United Arab Emirates (155)
193. Qatar (141)
And the lowest fatality rates from auto accidents. Again, there's little overlap, other than Maldives:
184. Switzerland (5)
185. Netherlands (4)
186. Antigua and Barbuda (4)
187. Tonga (4)
188. Israel (4)
189. Marshall Islands (4)
190. Fiji (4)
191. Malta (3)
192. Tajikistan (3)
193. Maldives (2)
For reference, the U.S. had 817 deaths per 100,000 residents from all four causes, which is slightly better than the average global fatality rate of 844. In terms of auto fatalities, the U.S. had 14 deaths per 100,000, placing it above the global average of 18.
We should point out that the report leaves out a few countries that might've made the "ten safest" lists, but weren't included -- countries like Greenland and Vatican City. It also overlooks some troubled areas that could've ended up on the bottom, like South Sudan and Palestine. Just so you know.
SO, WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
Maybe we're Type-A personalities, but when we read a report, we expect to walk away with a few bullet points. Sivak and Schoettle's findings, however, are a bit subtle for that. True, their per-country comparisons of various causes of death are interesting (e.g. the overwhelming likelihood that Qataris will die in auto accidents rather than from strokes), but the authors don't draw any conclusions from those stats or offer any suggestions to explain them.
Perhaps Sivak and Schoettle began their work assuming/hoping that they'd find some overlap between the various causes of death. Unfortunately, they were comparing apples to apples, and such Freakonomic-style linkages occur more often when comparing apples to oranges -- in this case, for example, looking for parallels between education rates or GDP and auto fatalities.
And so, we're left with three major takeaways:
1. The knowledge that auto fatalities constitute a mere sliver of the world's deaths: "For the world, fatalities from road crashes represented 2.1% of fatalities from all causes.... The highest percentage by country (15.9% in the United Arab Emirates) was 53 times the lowest percentage (0.3% in the Marshall Islands)."
2. Math still works: "For a country to have fatalities from road crashes corresponding to a high percentage of fatalities from another cause requires either a high fatality rate per population from road crashes, or a low fatality rate from the other cause, or both. The converse applies to a low percentage." Which is a complicated sentence, but also duh.
3. Decent, if grisly fodder for cocktail party conversations.
If you're intrigued by this kind of data, you should really check out a similar study published by the Pulitzer Center based on WHO data from 2010. Though many of the best and worst performers are the same as in Sivak and Schoettle's report, the findings are far more nuanced.
The Pulitzer Center looked only at auto fatalities, taking into account the number of people killed as auto passengers as well as those killed while riding motorcycles, bicycles, and while walking. It also provided data on legal efforts to curb auto fatalities in each country, which was immensely interesting to data hounds like us.
Granted, the folks at Pulitzer didn't draw many telling conclusions, either, but at least their data's pretty.