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November 1, 2005

Oil and Alcohol Could Kill You

Analysis Finds Connection between Road Casualties, Oil Consumption and Economic Development

Two liquids—oil and alcohol—contribute to road fatalities, according to researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, University of California at Irvine and the Global Forum for Health Research, in Geneva, Switzerland. By analyzing data from 41 countries from the mid 1990s, the study authors found that a 10 percent increase in gross domestic product in lower-income countries— up to approximately $8,000 per person—resulted in a 3 percent increase in the number of traffic deaths. However, in wealthier countries, an increase in gross domestic product reduced traffic deaths. The effects of oil and gross domestic product were partially independent of one another. As a result, if a country is able to maintain a high national income while using less gasoline, its population will experience fewer traffic deaths. The study, which also showed that countries with more alcohol consumption had more traffic deaths, was recently published online by the journal Health Economics.

David Bishai

David M. Bishai

“Taxing gasoline and alcohol could lower traffic deaths by causing less driving and less drunk driving, but weaning an economy off of these fluids has to be done carefully because recessions are not good for public health either. The good news is that there are economies that manage to thrive with less fuel consumption than the United States,” said David M. Bishai, MD, MPH, PhD, lead author of the study and an associate professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Population and Family Health Sciences.

The researchers reviewed data from the International Roadway Federation on road transportation crashes, injuries and fatalities, the countries’ total number of vehicles, kilometers of roadway, oil consumption, population totals and gross domestic product during 1992-1996 for 41 countries. They found that a 10 percent increase in gross domestic product in lower income countries resulted in a 7.9 percent raise in the number of transportation crashes, 4.7 percent increase in traffic injuries and a 3 percent jump in the number of deaths. In wealthier countries, an increase in gross domestic product reduced traffic deaths, but not the number of crashes or injuries.

Wealthier countries’ investments in traffic safety, such as better roads, seat belt laws and monitoring of speeds, might explain the decrease in deaths, according to the study authors. The paradox is that crashes and road injuries are consistently more frequent in countries that are wealthier, while traffic deaths eventually become less frequent. More effective trauma care systems are a more likely explanation for why traffic death rates decrease, say the authors. Burdened with other priorities, lower income countries do not invest in traffic safety and trauma care, which might explain their increase in traffic deaths as their economies become more motorized, according to the study authors.

“Although a higher gross domestic product per capita has a correlation with fewer traffic deaths, it is disheartening to see that traffic crashes and injuries keep increasing with a nation’s income. Economic growth means that our children and children’s children will be richer than we are and the better news is that they will be less likely to die in car crashes than we are. The bad news is that they will be more likely to be injured and to crash, especially if their use of gasoline grows the way ours has,” said Bishai.

The study was supported by grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health.

Additional co-authors of the study are Asma Quresh, Prashant James and Abdul Ghaffar.

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Kenna Lowe or Tim Parsons at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu. Photographs of David Bishai are available upon request.