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Traveling abroad is a great opportunity to see the world, experience new cultures, and expand your horizons. However, many people are afraid to travel to other countries because of various fears, such as crime, disease, terrorism, or political instability. The risk an international traveler faces for these things is very low, though. There’s a risk that’s much much higher — and it’s an activity that most people do every day: driving or riding in a car. The number one cause of death while traveling abroad is car crashes

Car crashes are the leading cause of death while traveling abroad

Car driving on a road in Bali, showing car crashes are the leading cause of death while traveling abroad
Sunset on Bali road | Sasha Yudaev via Unsplash

In addition to writing for an automotive site, I’ve been a travel writer for many years, with adventures all over the world. Travel is a wonderful experience. This is not only because of what you can learn about other countries — but also for the broader perspective it shines on your home country, as well as yourself. 

However, one of the most frustrating things about international travel is the distorted views that people have about other countries. Many have irrational fears about the potential dangers while disregarding the most significant risk: death or injury from a car accident. 

People are hesitant to travel because they think a country has many homicides, is full of terrorism, or is rampant with disease. However, for traveling abroad, deaths by car crashes are much higher than all other risks.

Tuk-tuks in Thailand, showing car crashes are number one cause of death for international travel to other countries
Tuk-tuks on street in Bangkok, Thailand | Florian Wehde via Unslash

According to the CDC, in 2017 and 2018, 1,500 Americans died from non-natural causes in other countries. With 431 fatalities, car crashes were by far the number one cause of death.

Here were the leading causes of death for U.S. citizens in foreign countries during that period:

  1. Car crashes: 431
  2. Homicide: 291
  3. Drowning/maritime: 266
  4. Suicide: 218
  5. Aviation: 25
  6. Drug-related: 23
  7. Terrorism: 14
  8. Other causes: 278

People fear the unknown and unfamiliar — but ignore the dangers of a routine activity like driving

Bus driving on mountain road in Nepal
Mountain road in Nepal | Sergey Ashmarin via Wikimedia Commons

A reason for these misconceptions about traveling abroad is people fear what’s unknown and unfamiliar to them. This fear is also a contributing factor for other phobias, fears, and anxieties, per Healthline. Unfortunately, at its most extreme, it leads to xenophobia — with intolerance toward foreigners.

Conversely, driving or riding in a car is a routine activity for most people. It’s familiar to them — so they don’t think about the risk, despite it being more dangerous than the things they most fear. 

The U.S. State Department also makes this mistake of overemphasizing other risks — while paying little attention to the dangers of driving or riding in cars in other countries. It releases travel advisories for things like terrorism or political instability — but not for the more risky activity of driving or riding in a car in a country with dangerous road conditions.

Many travel guidebooks do the same thing, too. They’ll have a list of dangers and annoyances, but you won’t see car accidents anywhere on it.

What countries have the most road deaths per capita?

Traffic fatalities are a global problem. Per the CDC, 1.35 million are killed in deaths on roadways each year. That translates to nearly 3,500 deaths every day — whether from cars, trucks, SUVs, motorcycles, pedestrians, or bicycles. However, most of the deaths are pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists. 

Also, traffic fatalities disproportionately affect lower-income countries. The Dominican Republic is the country with the most road deaths per capita, followed by ones in Africa:

  1. Dominican Republic: 67.2
  2. Zimbabwe: 67.5
  3. Malawi: 57.2
  4. Liberia: 55.9
  5. Eritrea: 54.1
  6. Uganda: 53.6
  7. Burundi: 52.1
  8. Gambia: 51.3
  9. South Sudan: 51.0
  10. Tanzania: 49.3

If you travel abroad and fear dying of an unnatural cause, the best way to ensure your safety is to avoid getting into a car crash. This includes doing things like buckling up your seatbelt, avoiding shady taxis and buses, being careful about crossing the street, and being cautious if you rent a motorbike or motorcycle. 

From my personal experience, that last point of caution is important. Traveling by motorbike is a great way to see other countries, especially in ones with narrow streets where it’s more challenging to travel by car. It can be quite deadly, though.

For example, in the popular tourist destination of Bali, many travelers rent motorbikes to see the beaches, rice terraces, and other spots on the beautiful island. However, with the dangerous road conditions and erratic driving behavior, an average of one international traveler dies each day from a motorbike accident.