Facts that should change the world

Cars kill two people every minute and most of those who die or suffer injury are not drivers or pass

On 17 August 1896, 44-year-old Bridget Driscoll became the first person to be killed by a motor car. She and her teenage daughter were visiting London to watch a dancing display. On a terrace in the grounds of the Crystal Palace, she was hit by a car that was offering demonstration rides to the public. As he gave a verdict of accidental death, the coroner said "this must never happen again".

But it has. Since then, roughly 25 million people have been killed in road traffic accidents. The good news is that, in developed countries, road accidents have fallen by about 25 per cent since the early 1970s, despite enormous increases in the numbers of vehicles on the road. In fact, British road deaths were more than twice as high in 1930 as they were in 1999, when there were 27 times as many cars.

The bad news is that a study by Harvard University reckons by 2020 road accidents will be the world's third-biggest cause of death or permanent injury. The people now most affected by road accidents are the poor.

Why? If you drive a car in a richer country, it is likely to be a relatively new one with, for example, air bags and anti-lock braking. The roads are likely to be well-maintained and there are laws to stop drivers from drinking too much or taking drugs or talking on mobile phones. None of this applies in many developing countries, where roads are often narrow and potholed, where emergency services may take hours to arrive, and where medical care may be prohibitively expensive.

But there is hope. A scheme initiated by the World Bank in 1999 aims to convince governments that road accidents - of which men aged between 15 and 44 are so often the victims - hinder development.

Extracted from Fifty Facts That Should Change the World by Jessica Williams, published by Icon Books (£9.99)