Study shows how low-cost auto safety features would reduce traffic deaths in some countries


Despite having fewer cars and drivers on the roads, low- and middle-income Latin American and Caribbean countries experience higher death rates from traffic deaths each year compared to high-income countries, such as the U.S. and countries in Europe.

Many of these cars in Latin American and Caribbean countries are less than 10 years old, so why do these countries still have higher numbers of traffic-related deaths? One reason may be the lack of proven successful technological safety features being implemented in car design. Recent research from Kavi Bhalla, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Chicago. looks into how use of low-cost and successfully tested safety features could lower these numbers.

In the study, published in The Lancet Global Health, Bhalla uses a method of modelling known as counterfactual analysis to look at how adding safety features — such as antilock braking systems, airbags and softer vehicle fronts for pedestrian collisions — can affect the number of traffic deaths that occur from crashes. Counterfactual analysis imagines a scenario where all cars on the road have these updated safety features, rather than the low population of cars that currently do. When creating a model to look at how each safety feature might change the number of traffic deaths in different countries in the Latin American and Caribbean region, the authors demonstrate that each safety feature would result in a reduction in the number of traffic deaths for each country.

Safety features such as electronic stability control, antilock braking systems and airbags are seen today in high income countries as a necessity in any new car that enters the market, but these improvements are not being made currently in low- and middle-income countries, despite the low costs associated with them. Bhalla discussed that this may be due to two large components that push for incorporation of safety features in the U.S. and Europe: public policy regulations and the use of the consumer-aimed programs that study and rate the safety of new cars.

“A lot of time, experts look at this as a regulations story,” Bhalla said. “Public policy regulations on safety features impact what is implemented in each country and getting countries to regulate is key — but public knowledge also plays a role.

"The United States and Europe have safety rating systems for new cars, with almost all cars entering the market scoring a high 4- or 5-star rating. When people see this high safety rating, it impacts what car they might buy. It creates a feedback loop for car manufacturers to improve safety and maintain a high rating for their cars. This also is a major player in how safety features become mainstream in the industry.” Policy regulations and consumer studies are not as widely employed in many Latin American and Carribbean countries, and changes to both seem necessary to see major changes in car safety and a reduction in traffic-related deaths.

The study “Effects of Improvements in Vehicle Safety Design on Road Traffic Deaths, Injuries, and Public Health Burden in the Latin American Region: A Modelling Study” was published on May 7, 2020 in The Lancet Global Health. Kevin Gleason at The University of Chicago is an additional author on this study.