Record levels for China’s highway deaths image

According to new statistics from the World Health Organization, an estimated 275,000 people were killed on China’s roadways last year.

That’s nearly nine times more than died in the U.S. – even after a slight, unexpected surge in American highway deaths during 2012. That figure is also more than four times higher than the official government number, 60,000 traffic fatalities last year.

Even adjusting for the fact that China has four times the U.S. population, the total is astounding, accounting for 20.5 citizens out of every 100,000. The American death rate is 11.4 per 100,000. And that doesn’t even account for the fact that China still has barely a third as many cars as the U.S., and its citizens clock far fewer miles than the 12,000 to 15,000 averages in the States. Only a handful of countries, including Argentina, Iraq, El Salvador and Chad, suffer a higher percentage of their populations killed in automobile accident each year.

There’s been a significant focus on China’s air pollution problem in recent years, smog in major cities like Beijing registering off the charts during some of the worst days this year. That’s been at least partially linked to emissions from the country’ fast-growing automobile population. In fact, Beijing recently announced plans for a significant reduction in what was already a strict limit on new vehicle registrations.

Beijing, Shanghai and other so-called Tier I cities have also been struggling with serious and worsening traffic congestion problems that, in turn, are blamed for the surge in traffic fatalities, according to government regulators and analysts.

“The road transport safety situation is very grim,” acknowledged the Chinese Transportation and Communications Ministry, following the death of 41 people when an intercity bus caught fire in Henan Province in July 2011. The situation has only grown worse since then.

Worse, the New York Times estimates that “only a fraction” of all highway deaths actually show up on the books due to what is considered “widespread underreporting” by authorities.

A 2010 study by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore and the Central South University in Changsha, China, showed that nearly three times as many recorded by the country’s Health Ministry as were officially reported by police. And various reports indicated even those figures might fall short of the true total.