Home / Opinion / Columns /  Buckle up, numbers aplenty ahead

A few days ago, we heard that India’s economy had overtaken the UK’s by size. This makes India’s the fifth-largest in the world, behind the US, China, Germany and Japan. This milestone was cause for celebrations in some circles, certainly a reflection of our growing economy.

A few days ago as well, a horrific car accident killed Cyrus Mistry and Jehangir Pandole. This tragedy got plenty of people thinking about road safety measures. Sadly, neither Mistry nor Pandole was wearing their rear-seat safety belts.

In this column, I will toss you some figures about these two happenings. Perhaps they will give them some context and give you something to think about.

If you think about it, India becoming the world’s fifth-largest economy was almost inevitable. Why so? Because this is a huge country. As more and more of its citizens are more and more economically active, its economy will naturally grow. Eventually, the sheer numbers who live and work within our borders mean we will overtake most other countries, especially those with far fewer people than we do.

Consider: The UK has 67.2 million people. India is at about 1.4 billion—20 times larger. Whatever the reasons—colonialism, industrialization, etc.—the UK’s economy had a yawning headstart on ours in 1947. Seventy-five years later, that lead has dwindled to zero, as it had to. In much the same inexorable way, we will likely overtake Germany (population: 83 million) and Japan (126 million) sometime relatively soon. What about China and the US? Well, China’s population is about the same as ours, and those countries’ economies are about five (China) and seven (US) times larger than ours. So their lead will persist for a long time.

But these mentions of population and economies raise an intriguing question. If we compare countries’ economies by their overall size, should we also compare them per capita? After all, to the average citizen, per capita income is the measure that is relevant. The life that the average citizen lives is shaped far more immediately by the income she makes than the overall state of her country’s economy.

For this column, let’s divide GDP by population to arrive at per capita income. If looked at that way, India’s per capita income is a little more than $2,000. The UK’s is about 20 times that, at about $40,000. Looked at that way, we haven’t overtaken the UK at all.

So which of these comparisons is “right"? Both, really. India’s economy is certainly growing and is now larger than the UK’s. That’s a milestone to savour. Still, I would bet the average Indian sees herself, and the majority of her fellow citizens, as far less prosperous than the average resident of the UK. The respective per capita incomes tell that latter story.

Turn now to the accident. The two deaths spurred plenty of commentary about road design, overspeeding and more, and of course, the need to use those rear-seat safety belts. That last is critical. You’ve seen the videos that show the effects of an accident on unbelted mannequins in the rear. You’ve seen the figures that suggest the use of belts decreases the chance of dying dramatically. All eye-opening, but for now, focus on some other figures.

When we rank countries not by their economy but by the number of road accident deaths, India is not fifth or third. It is nearly at the top of the heap. According to the estimable folks at Our World In Data, traffic on our roads kills about 200,000 people yearly. That’s second only to China, where the toll is about 250,000. In this morbid race, no other country comes close to us Asian giants; in fact, we outdo all of Africa, the Americas and all of Europe. Brazil (45,000), the US (41,000) and Indonesia (37,000) are the rest of the top five countries.

Ah, but like with the economy above, what about road death numbers per capita? Divide those tolls by each country’s population to find that for every million residents, Brazil loses about 211 people to traffic accidents, China 179, India 145, Indonesia 135 and the US 124. So among these five large countries, Brazil tops, pushing India to third place.

Do the per capita numbers make you look at accident tolls differently? But wait: Other ways to look at them might tell different stories. (For the rest of this article, I’ll stick to the US, China, and India.)

For example, the number of traffic accidents in each country: The US is a runaway world leader, with about 2.2 million accidents annually. India’s count is at about 500,000, and China about 212,000. (Data from the International Road Federation in Geneva.) Divide the death tolls by these numbers, and they suggest that accidents vary widely, and surprisingly, in how deadly they are. For example, someone dies with every 50th accident in the US, but every second one in India and every single one in China.

If you find that hard to swallow, it probably is. What these numbers may really suggest is that many accidents in India and China are simply not reported to authorities; even what Indians might consider minor “fender-benders" make it to the list of American accidents.

What if we factor in vehicle ownership? China leads the world there, with 307 million motor vehicles. Second and third are the US and India, with 291 million and 89 million, respectively. Do the arithmetic to find that for every million vehicles, the US has 141 deaths in accidents. China, 814 deaths. India, 2,247.

(Aside: Remember that these ownership figures don’t account for two-wheelers, which in India are about three times as numerous as other motor vehicles. I’ll leave the consequent arithmetic to you.)

Sobering, that 2,247? That’s what statistics can do. Sliced one way, they appear reassuring and worth celebrating. Sliced another, sobering. Take your pick. But whatever you do, please, please buckle up.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun.

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