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It’s common to worry about theft and sickness when travelling abroad. But surprisingly, motor vehicle crashes — not terrorism, crime, infectious disease or plane travel — are the biggest killer of tourists globally.

“A deadly cocktail of killer roads, unsafe vehicles, dangerous driving and disoriented or carefree tourists means many dream holidays of a lifetime instead become life-ending nightmares,” reads the introduction to "Bad Trips: International tourism and road deaths in the developing world” The report was released late last year by Make Roads Safe, a global initiative, and FIA Foundation for the Automobile and Society, a non-profit group based in London.

And according to the World Heath Organization (WHO), more than 90% of the world’s fatal road crashes occur in low- to middle-income countries like Turkey, China and Cambodia, which are also increasingly popular tourist destinations.

Much of the problem is rapid development. With more vehicles on the roads, the infrastructure often cannot keep pace. Frequently, roads and vehicles are poorly maintained and the laws, enforcement and driver training are weak.

“There is going to be an estimated 83% increase in traffic deaths in the next 10 years in low and middle income countries unless we take action now,” said Bella Dinh-Zarr, the North American director of Make Roads Safe and director of road safety for the FIA Foundation.

Safety experts say most travel guidebooks and websites do a poor job of preparing tourists to make safe choices. But savvy travellers can learn about local roads, laws and customs before they go.

Asking a few simple questions can save your life, said Dr Dinh-Zarr. When renting a car, for example, most people ask for the fastest route. Asking which is the safest would be a better strategy, she said.

She also suggested avoiding taxis without seatbelts, to always wear helmets when riding motorcycle taxis, to consider hiring an established car service rather than drive in some countries, like India and Mexico, among others. It’s also important to only take buses from an established company. After crashes, some bus companies have been known to close down and simply reopen with new names, said Rochelle Sobel, founder of the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT). “You need to do your homework, that’s the bottom line.”

In many countries, like Cambodia, where road fatalities have almost doubled in the last decade, travelling at night or near dawn, particularly in rural areas, is strongly discouraged. Headlights are often turned off, as drivers wrongly believe it saves the batteries,  Sobel said.

Many crashes happen at night or in the early dawn, like the bus crash in Egypt last December that killed at least eight Americans. Egypt has one of the highest traffic death rates per person in the world, according to WHO, which broke down estimated road traffic death rates by country.

More life-saving tips can be found in ASIRT’s Road Travel Reports, which detail dangerous roads to avoid and driver behaviour for more than 150 countries ($30 each; less for additional copies).

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