Asian People are Good Drivers

Good at Math, Bad at Driving. Those are stereotypes of East Asians. But Dr. Hans Rosling’s Gapminder organization offers statistics that let us see whether these stereotypes are based on reality or not.

Placed under the Infrastructure > Traffic menu in the Gapminder software is ‘Traffic deaths per 100,000 population’. Even though the figures in Gapminder are modified to account for the differing age distributions between countries (some countries have a younger population and younger people tend to get into more accidents), we must also consider differing levels of vehicle ownership. (A fair comparison would look at traffic deaths per mile driven, since people in some countries might drive much more each year than those in other countries, but we don’t have that data.)

The x-axis of the graph below shows the number of ‘Cars, trucks & buses per 1,000 persons’. (This only includes legally registered passenger vehicles, not two-wheelers like scooters). Because this value covers several orders of magnitude, the axis is logarithmic.

The data is mostly from 2007, though figures from as early as 2003 were used for some non-Asian countries, to have as many points as possible. (Using data from different years is not currently possible in Gapminder, so it was necessary to instead work directly with their data files.)

(click to enlarge)

Countries were split into 9 groups based on vehicle prevalence and the population-averaged number of traffic deaths found for each group. For example Bangladesh, Ethiopia and some other countries have 2-4 vehicles per 1000 persons, so their death rates were averaged together.

Thus, countries above the bold line have more traffic deaths than their peers, while those below the line have fewer.

The total world average traffic death rate is about 19.9 fatalities per 100,000 people per year, meaning that about 1.2 million people die in traffic accidents annually.

Interestingly, the average death rate tends to drop as vehicle prevalence goes up. Ethiopia and Bangladesh, which only have a few vehicles per 1000 persons, both have death rates greater than countries where vehicles are many times more common.

But the question was not if more vehicles lead to more accidents, it was whether or not Asians are good drivers. Here ‘Asia’ is considered to be: South Korea, Japan, China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore. Thailand and North Korea were left out due to lack of data and Brunei because of its small population.

We can see from Gapminder’s data that seven of the Asian countries considered had traffic death rates that were lower than the average and only four (Laos, the Philippines, Mongolia and Malaysia) had averages that were higher. To their benefit, the Asian countries that were below average in traffic fatalities include the most populous ones: China, Japan and Indonesia. That is, Asian people are good drivers. The Japanese and Singaporeans are great.

China’s figure is even more impressive considering how new driving is to many Chinese compared to Europeans and Americans. From Gapminder’s data we can find that in 2002 China had about 13 vehicles per 1000 persons. In 2007, about 32. So the prevalence of vehicles nearly tripled between 2002 and 2007. This means that in 2007, about 2/3rds of all cars on the road were less than 5 years old. And that means that many Chinese drivers had only been on the road for a few years, even among grown adults. As time goes on, China’s traffic death rate might drop while Europe and North America’s might be more stable.

So if Asians are not bad drivers then who are? The worst by far, for their level of vehicle ownership, are people from the United Arab Emirates, who own a couple of hundred vehicles per 1000 persons but apparently drive like a bunch of circus clowns.

I’ll leave it up to you to find out from Gapminder’s data if the ‘Good at Math’ stereotype is true or not.

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  1. Americans loose a lot of lives on the road. I suppose that should go into the equation.

  2. pbrain

    In Taiwan, women drivers are hopeless.. they should be forced to take a follow up driving test every morning before being permitted access to their vehicle – that goes for bicycles as well!

    And watch out for those salty TaiChung noodles!

    • Unfortunately, Gapminder’s data does not list Taiwan’s level of motor vehicle ownership, nor the traffic mortality level, nor the availability of TaiChung noodles, so I was not able to plot a point for them.

      When and if Gapminder updates their figures to include Taiwan (and/or Thailand, N. Korea, etc.) I will update my graph.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Kujo

    Bangladesh is pretty impressive. Generally less cars on the road mean less infrastructure and legal regulation (which is why they are so accident-prone). But it’s well below the trend line. Especially compared to Ethiopia. Factor in how densely populated the country is (1000 persons/km2!!) and it’s pretty good stat.

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