Traffic Safety Abroad

We may worry more about parasites or contaminated water, but traffic collisions pose a much greater risk to travelers.

In 1995, 25-year-old Aron Sobel, from Potomac, Maryland, was killed along with 21 other passengers in a bus crash in the Mideast. In 1996, 20-year-old Sara Schewe, from Amherst, Massachusetts, and three other American girls died in a bus crash in South Asia. The two events were unrelated, except that in both cases the families of the deceased founded organizations—the Association for Safe International Road Travel ( in memory of Sobel, and Sara’s Wish Foundation ( in honor of Schewe—to educate travelers about the very real danger of road accidents.

A study published in the Journal of Travel Medicine in 2007 found traffic collisions to be the leading cause of death by injury for U.S. citizens abroad. In many developing countries, laws of the road are limited or inadequately enforced, and cars or buses compete with bicycles, carts, and pedestrians. Roads are often poorly constructed and maintained and have insufficient signage and lighting. In the event of an accident, bad roads can delay an emergency response. “People may think about the water supply when they travel, and everyone has concerns about infectious diseases,” says Stephen Hargarten, M.D., director of the Injury Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin, which was responsible for the study. “So they take precautions by avoiding high-risk foods and drinking bottled water. It’s no different with road safety. Ask for a car with air bags, bring a car seat for children, and wear a helmet on a motorcycle.” The ASIRT Web site provides road travel reports for 160 countries. “We answer questions like ‘Am I better off driving myself, hiring a driver, or taking a train?’ ” says Rochelle Sobel, Aron’s mother. “You have to know the local road culture: Who has the right of way? How seriously is a stoplight taken—is it considered to be just a suggestion? Even where the stoplight is located may not be intuitive.”