The total financial loss resulting from the 124,000 killed and the millions more injured last year on the roads of the 29 most developed countries was the equivalent of 2 per cent of their entire economies, the Organisation for Economic Control and Development said.
The OECD - the group of 29 richest nations - said the cost was "unacceptable" and it has begun a research programme to help cut the death toll.
Fatalities fell 6 per cent from 1997. The OECD said that in some countries the death toll had fallen to levels last seen in 1956, despite a huge growth in traffic over the past four decades. "However, success in road safety is relative to the horrendous levels of road fatalities experienced during the early Seventies, when fatalities were about 25 per cent higher than current levels," it said in a report posted on its website. "To argue that 124,000 road fatalities represents a success story negates the huge personal and economic cost to society that results from a road crash."
OECD research showed that the United States had the highest death toll, with 41,967 fatalities. The death toll surged 80 per cent in Iceland, 16 per cent in Norway, 6 per cent in France and 3 per cent in Spain, while all the other countries cut the number of fatalities.
The OECD said a few countries reported that even after allowing for the effects of improved economic conditions for 1998 - economic recovery led to an increase in travel - there was still a rise in fatalities compared with 1997. "Because of the multiplicity of factors that can contribute to road fatalities, it is difficult to determine the causes," it said.
The death toll on Britain's roads fell 4 per cent, to 3,581 from 3,743. But the greatest cuts were in Korea, where fatalities were cut by 22 per cent, followed by a fall of 15 per cent in the Czech Republic.
In Britain, it is understood that the National Audit Office is considering an inquiry into the amount of taxpayers' money spent on preventing and dealing with road accidents. It is worried that too much is spent on treating crash victims and too little on safety campaigns. Crashes are estimated to cost the economy pounds 3bn a year in terms of ambulance call-outs, three million NHS bed days, follow-up medical care and time taken off work by the bereaved.
The Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions directly spends pounds 100m on road safety and put the price of preventing a fatal accident at pounds 848,000. This is based on an assessment of cost of the measures needed to prevent each fatal crash. Road-safety campaigners criticise the cynicism of both this figure and the method used to arrive at it.Reuse content