Traffic accidents kill over 1.25 million people per year, and the effects of global corruption are truly incalculable. As several reports highlight, an unlikely connection might tie the two.

Something like this is common for some parts of the world. Image credits: Alex Graves / Creative Commons.

Driving through Bucharest, Romania, isn’t for the faint of heart. There are jams all the time, drivers going where they shouldn’t be, and all of it happening to a general sound of loud honking. But that doesn’t even come close to many cities in Thailand, where going out in a car is an adventure where you never know what could happen. If you would take all the countries in the world and plot car accidents and the rule of law (as a sort of opposite of corruption), you’d end up with an interesting correlation: the more corrupt the country is, the more accidents happen — including fatal accidents. As you can see below, the correlation isn’t perfect, but the trend is definitely visible.

Image via QZ.

Income also plays a key, and interesting role. Income and motor accidents have a kind of inverted-U relationship: poor countries have fewer accidents. Then, as countries, get richer, the number of accidents also grows. It reaches a maximum, and then, for the richest countries, starts to greatly decline. A study found that the turnaround point is somewhere between $10,000 and $11,000 per capita (paywall).

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At this point, you could argue that this is a coincidence or a correlation-doesn’t-imply-causation thing — and you’d be right to make that argument. However, writer James O’Malley at CityMetric who wrote about this correlation isn’t the only person to think about this. A study published in 2006 in the National Bureau of Economic Research asks “Does Corruption Produce Unsafe Drivers?”, while in 2002, another study discussed the car accidents happening in corruption-plagued developing countries. Of course, this doesn’t imply a causation between corruption and car accidents as several other factors are involved, but it does seem to indicate that there are underlying elements for both issues.

In Bucharest for instance, you’d see police officers at most major crossroads, but driving aggressively (and often, illegally) is so endemic that people just don’t bother about the policemen. Drivers just assume that everyone will break the law — and the policemen themselves are faced with a difficult situation: how do you punish almost everyone? Of course, corruption might rear its ugly head here too, but at its very core, the road is a microcosm of a country.

Image credits: Franz Golhen.

When you’re on the road, everyone is basically watching their own interest. You want to get from point A to point B, and you don’t really care whether or not other people get to where they want. Of course, in the long run, everyone’s better off respecting each other and obeying the law, but in the short run, you have an interest to abuse the rules if that means you get there faster. The same happens in a society. You might try to bribe your way to the top of the list, or pay off a government official to give you a preferential contract. Society as a whole loses, but you might gain a lot (if you don’t get caught). Then others might catch on to this and might start bribing too, and soon everyone’s disobeying the law — just like they’re doing on the streets.

People might culturally be familiar with this, or it might be a completely strange phenomenon for them. Indeed, cultural factors as well were found to correlate corruption and traffic accidents. Certain cultural values, such as intellectual autonomy, were seen to reduce traffic fatalities. Others, such as having a hierarchical social structure, made them more common. All in all, good governance was found to be an effective moderator of some of those values that would otherwise increase fatalities. Of course, none of this truly indicates, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that corruption and aggressive/illegal driving are directly linked. There’s a lot of speculation and a lot of incomplete evidence, but at least often, the two seem to go hand in hand. For now, we’ll just leave it as an intriguing possibility,

So spare a moment to think about how the streets are in your country. Then ponder how corrupt your country is. Do you see a correlation? Answers are more than welcome in the comments.