Motor Vehicle Travel: The Real "Death Zone" of International Travel

How do most physicians die in international medicine?

Here’s a pop quiz:  The most dangerous thing you and your companions will do while on your next expedition is:

(A) Trek to 14,000 feet while trying to avoid altitude sickness

(B) Push through that jungle trail hoping not to pick up a malaria parasite along the way

(C) Dive deep in the ocean while dodging Great Whites and the Bends

(D) Drive from the local airport to your hotel

If you answered “D” then give yourself a prize.

When most people think about international travel risks, they think about terrorists, wild animal attacks, exotic infectious diseases, or some other uniquely international threats such as lava flows or voodoo hexes.  However, many people are surprised to learn that statistically, the most dangerous thing they’ll do during their international trip is drive in an motorized vehicle.  Mountaineers talk about the “death zone” on a high-altitude peak, above which life is very sketchy.  For most international travelers, their “death zone” is a busy road in an unfamiliar international location.

According to an article published in the Public Health Reports , the most common way American civilians die abroad (excluding chronic "natural" causes such as heart disease or cancer that roughly correlate with typical US death rates for age and gender) is in traffic accidents.  The only recent exception to this rule is humanitarian workers in areas of conflict—in these cases intentional violence is the most common cause of death .

With so many people dying on the roads while traveling abroad, what are some basic travel-safety tips for medical officers to consider?  Below is an excerpt from the Travel Safety chapter of our Expedition & Wilderness Medicine textbook that was written by Dr. Michael VanRooyen, Director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative:

Consider a few practical tips for traveling via automobile when traveling abroad. This includes avoiding the temptation to drive yourself.  If you can hire a local driver, you might get a better sense of the region you are traveling, and if there is a traffic mishap, you are not held directly (and financially) accountable.  If you have to drive, take your time, know where you are going, and seek major routes.  It is also wise to avoid driving at night. Navigating the poorly lit roads in Nairobi in an unfamiliar vehicle, with many pedestrians walking along the road (as there are very few sidewalks) is a recipe for disaster, both for the person or persons you may hit, and for you. 

Helpful hints while driving abroad )

  • Become familiar with your vehicle in less crowded conditions
  • Don’t drive at night
  • Drive slowly and in control
  • Avoid large gatherings or busy markets
  • Wear a seat belt, always
  • Avoid driving when you are suffering from jet lag

If you need to rent a car, look for a common type vehicle from a reputable dealer, and make sure the car is in good working order, making note of any preexisting body damage.  Consider getting a car with air conditioning so you can have the windows rolled up and the car locked when you are in it.  If you encounter what appears to be an informal road block or rocks across the road creating a makeshift barrier, there is a good likelihood that these are ploys to get you to stop. Turn around and drive away. Carjackers and thieves work in very organized groups around service stations, parking lots, markets and along major highways.  Be suspicious of anyone who flags you down, or points to your car to indicate a flat or an oil leak, hails you or tries to get your attention when you are in or near your car.

Also, it is generally unwise to rent a motorcycle or motor scooter.  While locals may be whirring conveniently around, nimbly navigating through traffic, as an outsider you have a reasonable chance of becoming a hood ornament, and being forced to be content with the local health care system. Many organizations who deploy field staff, the US Peace Corps included, have long since discouraged the use of motorcycles or scooters for their staff. 

When my wife and I first moved to Doha, Qatar, a very busy urban area well-known for its aggressive drivers, we opted to drive a very solid Toyota Land Cruiser and practiced our driving during times when traffic was less.   Within a short while, my wife and I could easily negotiate the local roundabouts without difficulty and had no problem following the rules of the road.  However, had we not taken our time to get acclimated to the new driving scene, we most likely would have had some problems.

Motor vehicle accidents are a serious problem and a leading cause of death for international travelers.  However, by following some common-sense tips for motor vehicle safety when traveling, you’ll do much to ensure the safety of yourself and your traveling companions.  Be aware of the risks while traveling in your international “death zone” and you’ll up your chances for a safe and enjoyable time while overseas.