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Afghanistan: Why Are Traffic Accidents and Road Fatalities Underreported?

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Image by Sgt. Ken Scar via Flickr Commons. Afghanistan, 2013.

I recently wrote that driving in places like Afghanistan is an exercise in a million close calls. Last week my driver was on the phone when we approached a large family unloading from a small car, and I saw a girl no more than four years old become fixated on something across the street. In an instant she took off running towards it, oblivious to traffic, and my driver, distracted and unable to see her anyway — she was that small, her head hardly above bumper level — had no idea. Everything happened in a flash, and I still have a clear image of the girl’s face, eyes squinted and determined, before she disappeared beneath our car, and then a millisecond after I lost her, of her body flinging back, arms and legs shooting outwards, gripped across the chest by a man who must have been her father. He had moved so quickly to rescue her I still can’t quite reconcile him with the man I’d seen moving arthritically from the backseat of a car moments before.

It reminded me that minuscule distances can determine survival, but it also served as further proof that in places where exotic dangers are legion, conventional risks appear more remote and preparing for them feels unnecessary. When you walk by RPGs resting on the tailgates of pickup trucks on the way in and out of ministries and shopping malls, things like bicycle safety hardly seem worthy of concern, but it is precisely because they’re not taken seriously that they become so lethal.

When I started working in conflict zones, I was astounded that there weren’t more injuries and deaths from car accidents just by the sheer volume and chaos of traffic, and how drivers adhere to their indifference toward pedestrians like a law. It took a few years before I understood that not hearing about vehicle accidents didn’t mean they weren’t happening; that absence of evidence wasn’t evidence of absence. It’s just that when accidental vehicle deaths have to compete on news sites with Taliban raids, suicide bombings, message-sending dismemberments and kidnappings, they have a hard time making it above the fold.

And that matters, in the same way that in the States, it matters that on the news more people die in fires than from drowning, even though they don’t in real life. It’s intuitive why that is: fires make for a more compelling visual, because there are flames, and big trucks with flashing lights, and a city block’s worth of bystanders out on the street. When someone drowns, your local ABC news affiliate doesn’t have much to work with. It’s less covered, and when it’s less covered it’s less memorable, which is why if you ask most Americans whether there are more deaths due to fire or water, they’ll give you the wrong answer.

So how do you get people to recalibrate their concern? I know this: I myself have a hard time adjusting my own behavior accordingly — it still feels strange to put a seatbelt on here — and I think it has to do with vulnerability, and how admitting that these risks are real makes us feel more vulnerable to them. We know that ignoring the dangers won’t make them disappear, but much of the world ignores them anyway; and it’s this conscious ignorance that needs recalibration.