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Washington — Billionaire Michael Bloomberg said Monday he will donate $125 million over the next five years to help reduce the rising number of road deaths worldwide — especially in large cities in poorer nations around the world.

More than 1.2 million people are killed and between 20 and 50 million people are injured in annual car crashes, the World Health Organization says, making road deaths one of the leading causes of preventable deaths worldwide.

In 2010, 1.24 million people were killed in road deaths, accounting for the leading cause of death worldwide for people age 15-29. Road deaths are the eighth leading cause of death worldwide and the United Nations forecasts it will be the fifth leading cause by 2030 “unless urgent action is taken.”

Many lower-income countries have poor road safety laws, lax enforcement, vehicles with few safety features and poorly constructed roads and traffic signals. Many don’t require motorcycle helmets, child safety seats or mandatory air bags or seat belt use. Others don’t have functioning 911 or ambulance systems.

“Every life lost because of unsafe roads is a tragedy — and most of those tragedies could be avoided with better rules, better enforcement, and smarter infrastructure. City governments can be especially effective at putting those measures in place because they are often able to move faster and more efficiently than other levels of government,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor. “This new funding will be targeted to cities where we can make the biggest difference, that have shown the strongest commitment to taking action, and that have the best ideas for making roads safer. And we’ll help those cities work together to share effective strategies — so that even more lives can be saved.”

It comes as automakers expect a massive jump in auto sales in coming years. Ford Motor Co. thinks worldwide auto sales will hit 110 million by 2020 — up from 85 million today.

Bloomberg Philanthropies has been working on road safety since 2010 and launched a new five-year-effort by its Global Road Safety initiative, “which aims to reduce fatalities and injuries from road traffic crashes. The foundation will invite select low- and middle-income cities with populations of over two million residents to apply for grants. Low- and middle-income countries will also be invited to be part of the program.”

In 2010, Bloomberg Philanthropies committed $125 million in funding to 10 countries that represented half of road traffic-related deaths globally (Brazil, Cambodia, China, Egypt, India, Kenya, Mexico, Russia, Turkey and Vietnam).

The next round of locations funded will be announced by January and each that win will get senior-level, full-time staff to work within city governments on road safety plans for up to 5 years, comprehensive technical assistance from the world’s leading road safety organizations, training for police and other relevant staff and support to create mass media campaigns.

“The program will work at both the national level to strengthen road safety legislation and the city level implementing proven road safety interventions. The proposals cities submit will detail how they plan to address road safety by applying solutions to a number of challenges including improving pedestrian and cyclist safety, enhancing laws to combat drinking and driving and speeding as well as encouraging the use of motorcycle helmets, seat-belts and child restraints.

While road deaths in the United States have fallen by about 25 percent since 2007, they are unchanged worldwide. But there are now 15 percent more vehicles worldwide to 1.6 billion — suggesting that some improvements in road safety have been made.

Brazil, Kenya, China, Mexico, Russia, Turkey and Vietnam have all passed road safety legislation and stricter penalties for drinking and driving, implemented compulsory seat-belt or helmet wearing regulations and have applied speed reduction laws, Bloomberg said. China criminalized drinking and driving in 2011, and in Vietnam penalties were established for motorcyclists wearing sub-standard helmets in 2013.

Between 2007 and 2010, road deaths fell in 88 countries and rose in 87 countries.

In total, 80 percent of worldwide road deaths occur in middle-income countries — but they only have 72 percent of the world’s population and 52 percent of the world’s vehicles. They have a fatality rate of 20.1 deaths per 100,000 residents, while wealthy nations have 8.1 deaths per 100,000 resident fatality rate.

In the United States, the speed limit in most urban areas is 25 mph or 30 mph. Just 59 countries covering only 39 percent of the world’s population have adopted speed limits of 31 mph or lower in urban areas. Fully half of all countries set speed limits nationally and don’t let local communities lower them in high population areas, a 2013 United Nations report said.

Worldwide, 77 percent of those killed in crashes are men and 60 percent are age 15-44. Half of the world’s road deaths are among pedestrians (22 percent), bicyclists (5 percent) and motorcyclists (23 percent.) In the U.S., those three categories account for about 30 percent of road deaths.

Africa has the highest death rate per 100,000 residents — 24.1, compared with 16.1 in North and South America, and 10.3 in Europe. Of African road deaths, 38 percent are pedestrians.

Most low-income countries don’t require the use of child seats. Many countries don’t require the use of seat belts by all passengers, including many African and Asian countries.

Another big issue is many buyers of cars in poorer countries don’t have the safety features — like advanced airbags, electronic stability control and strong vehicle structures — that vehicles wealthier countries have.

The report said the most popular vehicles sold in Latin America are 20 years behind the safety advances of European and North America and would fail the United Nations’ minimum crash standards. Most vehicles sold in Latin America don’t have airbags, the 2013 report said.

While 111 countries have standard emergency numbers like the U.S. 911 system, 42 nations have multiple national numbers to call in an emergency.

Most nations don’t have functioning ambulance service. Only 59 countries have ambulance service to transport at least 75 percent of those injured in car crashes.

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