Road crashes cost Dh21bn a year

Research shows that the horrifying figure is equal to an eighth of the UAE's oil exports or almost half of Dubai's annual tourism revenue.

ABU DHABI // Car crashes are robbing the country of as much as Dh21 billion a year, research has found. While collisions claim around 1,000 lives each year on the country's roads, they also suck billions of dirhams out of the economy. The losses include both direct and indirect expenses, such as medical costs, insurance loss, property damage, family income losses and traffic congestion.

The Dh21bn (US$5.7bn) is equivalent to the value of one in eight barrels of oil the UAE exports, or almost half of Dubai's tourism revenue each year. It is a horrifying figure, one road safety expert said, but essential information for policymakers taking on the country's second-leading killer, behind only cardiovascular disease. "It is the argument by public health scholars that usually decision makers do not act unless they see the economic impact of crashes," said Mohamed el Sadig, a researcher at the UAE University.

The figure was revealed this week in the Road Safety on Four Continents conference in the capital, and came from research compiled on behalf of the National Transport Authority by the Roadway Transportation and the Traffic Safety Research Center at UAE University. Health officials who see the victims of car crashes daily were not surprised. "Trauma treatment is exceedingly expensive and does represent a huge drain on healthcare resources worldwide," said Dr Murray Van Dyke, the chairman of emergency medicine at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City.

In Abu Dhabi alone, it is estimated that annual economic losses caused by road crashes are more than Dh6bn. That was the figure cited by Dr Jens Thomsen, the section head for occupational and environmental health and the head of the road safety programme at the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi. The high cost of treating traffic injuries is a reflection of their prevalence in the country. "We still have one of the highest road death rates in the world," Dr Thomsen said.

Mohamed el Sadig, who in 2002 published a dissertation on the economic costs of road traffic injuries in the UAE, said having the updated figures available would allow policymakers to establish the cost-benefit ratios of interventions for improving safety. Mr el Sadig's study, which was done about 10 years before the current one, estimated total economic losses at Dh3.8 billion. "Of course since then the numbers of crashes has increased," he said. "When I hear that it went from Dh4bn to Dh21bn, it is a bit horrifying."

Dr van Dyke said treating crash patients can be a long process requiring numerous follow-up procedures. Patients may require X-rays, CT scans, blood tests and surgery, as well admission into the hospital. Major crashes can result in days or weeks of hospital stay, or even permanent disability, he added, and serious cases often have multiple injuries. One trauma expert based in Dubai, who asked to remain anonymous, said these "polytrauma" patients were the most expensive to treat. "It's very costly and the number of accidents is very high. If you go to the trauma section it is mostly accidents and it costs the country a lot," he said.

Without identifying specific costs, he said investigative procedures are costly, as is treating serious injuries and intensive care. Patients who suffer paralysis also require longer follow-up procedures, for which they and their insurers must pay. In Dubai, emergency traffic cases are treated for free at the trauma centre in Rashid Hospital. Norm Labbe, the managing director of the Emirates Institute for Health and Safety, said that beyond the direct costs such as health care, the Dh21 billion figure is a reminder that every life lost is also a loss of an investment.

"We are losing on our future investment," Mr Labbe said. "If you look at the statistics and the lives that are lost in traffic collisions you'll see that the age group is quite young. "So the government is investing a lot into their education and ensuring the future wealth is going to be in place and every time they lose a young person, you are not just losing a life, you are losing the potential of the investment that is not being realised."

Males represented nine out of 10 traffic deaths in Abu Dhabi in 2007 and safety advocates say most of the dead are young men.