The use of motorcycles has been growing around the world, due to the mobility and speed that they offer, as well as affordability. With increased use comes more frequent accidents, making motorcycle use a public health issue around the world. According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Burden of Disease study, road accidents are on track to become the fifth leading cause of death in poor countries. Worldwide, 23% of the world’s road traffic deaths occur among motorcyclists, just 8% less than the amount of deaths among car drivers.
While hefty funds have been raised to combat AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, significantly less attention has been given to motorcycle accidents as a threat to public health. Some have gone so far to say that the world’s motorcycle boom is the “most-overlooked” health crisis.
In some poorer nations, motorcycles have revolutionized the economy, says Professor Noelle Sullivan, lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Global Health Studies. Though the use of motorcycles is “tremendously costly,” according to Sullivan, the economic benefits reaped contribute to the continual growth of their use. Because people can get around cheaply, selling crops in main markets becomes more accessible. In Tanzania, where Sullivan conducted public health research with a group of Northwestern students this summer, the problem is evident.
“In 2013 when I visited Tanzania, 3 young motorcycle drivers from one small village died in the course of a single weekend,” Sullivan says. “In 2014, I met a father whose two daughters, ages 5 and 7, were hit by a motorcycle in the main market.”
Last year, the United Nations General assembly declared 2011-2020 to be the Decade of Action for Road Safety, acknowledging motorcyclists as “vulnerable road users” with “inadequate infrastructure and insufficient policies in place” for their protection. The WHO Global status report on road safety 2013 served as a foundation for this resolution. This report details the lack of motorcycle helmet use around the world, with head injuries among motorcyclists as a growing concern.
According to the report, motorcyclists comprise one-third of all road traffic deaths in South East Asia and Western Pacific regions. In Europe, head injuries contribute to approximately 75% of deaths among motorcycle users. Proper helmet is encouraged to prevent such injuries and progress has been made in a number of countries in regard to motorcyclist helmet use. While 131 countries had helmet laws applying to both motorcycle drivers and passengers in 2008, 155 countries had laws in 2011. However, enforcement is not strong and only a fraction of the countries with helmet laws have specifications for the quality of helmets.
The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting joined with the Washington Post to create a Roads Kill Map, visually representing the statistics presented in the WHO’s global report. The road deaths in some countries, such as Thailand, Iran, and Nigeria, are over 30 per 100,000 people, with as much as 73% from motorcycle accidents in Thailand.
A study detailing motorcycle crashes in Brazil highlights many of the global issues with motorcycle use. By analyzing all fatal motorcycle crashes between January 2001 and December 2009 in Campinas Brazil, the researchers found that 90.8% of the 479 of deaths were male and the mean age was 27.8. This demonstrates the global trend, with young adults aged 15-44 accounting for 59% of global road traffic deaths and 77% of all road traffic deaths occurring among men. young males . Traumatic brain injury was the cause of death in two-thirds of the crashes. Notably, half of the accident victims died before receiving medical attention. This indicates that prevention programs and laws may be the best way to combat this global health crisis.
Moving forward, education and preventive measures may help to reverse the trend. In Cambodia, a country with 60% of road deaths among motorcycle users, a social marketing campaign was enacted to increase helmet use. Graphic images of a road traffic crash and threat of law enforcement were effective methods of marketing. Additionally, radio advertisements, billboards and TV commercials were used to communicate the messages of the campaign. The results of the program showed high reach and high recall among the target audience. The effects of the program on actual helmet use have yet to be assessed. These types of educational measures, in addition to stronger law enforcement, are necessary to address this public health crisis.