Editorial | The economics of road safety
For the past several days, this newspaper has been reporting on the results of a survey on people's perception of the state of Jamaica's public-health institutions, particularly the island's hospitals. Mostly, they believe they are pretty bad. And that, the majority think, is primarily because of the State's underinvestment in health services.
What our survey doesn't substantial probe, however, is how Jamaicans believe they contribute to the situation of the health facilities and what they might do to ease the burden on them. It is an element of the health-care discussion that the Holness administration might consider engaging, starting, perhaps, with the impact of motor vehicle crashes.
That, at first blush, might seem a silly idea. But it might not be so unorthodox, however, when viewed in its fuller context. One is that on Sunday, Jamaica joins the world in a global remembrance of road-traffic victims, so the issue is topical at this time.
Further, injuries from traffic crashes annually account for up to a fifth of hospitalisations and accidents cause more deaths than a host of internal ailments, including breast cancer among women. Moreover, vehicle crashes cause many preventable deaths, whose numbers have, in recent years, trended in the wrong direction.
Or, viewed from the perspective of Jamaica's new US$1.64-billion standby arrangement (SBA) with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the quantitative targets thereunder, the prevention of traffic crashes is also a potentially serious economic discussion.
The highest number of road deaths in Jamaica was a quarter of a century ago, when 444 people were killed in crashes. Thereafter, a relatively robust road-safety campaign had decent returns. Over the next 21 years, deaths from vehicle crashes declined by 41 per cent, to 260 in 2012. But since then, they have been on the increase: 307 in 2013; 331 in 2014; 382 in 2015; and the National Road Safety Council (NRSC) expects the figure for 2016 to be similar to last year's. Since 2012, the number of crash fatalities has jumped from 9.59 per 100,000 population to 14 per 100,000 and males account for more than 80 per cent of the victims.
These traffic deaths are not only emotional family issues. They have profound economic impacts. Recent data are not immediately available, but a decade ago, it was estimated that the cost for treating victims was upwards of half a billion Jamaican dollars a year. The direct and indirect cost, including after-care therapy, and loss of productive time, were more than J$200 million. And with the bulk of the victims in the prime of their working lives, between the ages of 20 and 49, their deaths have long-term economic effects.
There are two significant facts here. One is that in a country that is hard-pressed to find money to increase the four per cent of GDP it spends on health services, lowering expenditure on a preventable ailment is good economics that should become part of the ongoing narrative of the NRSC.
Second, they know who the main drivers of the recent hikes in traffic deaths are: motorcyclists. In the past three years, deaths among this group have increased by 98 per cent to 111 in 2015. So, last year, they represented 29 per cent of the traffic deaths.
The NRSC and the Government have to tailor their interventions to this reality.