Automotive > Powertrain, Body, Chassis & Safety Blog

COVID-19: Watching the Detectives

by Roger Lanctot | Apr 06, 2020

News consumers trying to grasp the magnitude, source, and timing of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, sweeping the globe are beginning to understand something the auto industry has known for a long time: It's difficult to get reliable data from China. This reality is most notable in the business of automobile safety where the World Health Organization (WHO), which first shared news of the coronavirus with the world, reports on highway fatalities and fatality rates.

Understanding how the WHO copes with reporting discrepancies in highway fatalities will be very useful in understanding how the world comes to understand the scope and timing behind the current crisis. For years, the WHO has recognized a discrepancy in the reporting of highway fatalities between police reports and death registrations in China. One WHO report identified a 2X discrepancy more than 10 years ago, with death registrations showing many more highway-related fatalities than police reports.

As important as that cumulative figure, the death registrations also pointed toward an accelerating pace of highway fatalities, while the divergent police reports suggested a decline over time. This discrepancy is reflected to this day in the latest WHO report on Road Safety.

The 2018 WHO Report on Road Safety shows China's reported number of annual highway fatalities at more than 58,000, which correlates to a rate of 18.2/100,000 citizens which is 50% higher than the United States' highway fatality rate. The figure is high enough to identify China as the second most dangerous place to drive a car on the planet - based solely on this figure and second only to India, which itself reports more than 150,000 annual highway fatalities.

But the WHO provides a second figure in its annual highway fatality figures: "Modelled number of road traffic deaths." The modelled number is based on a "negative binomial regression" which produces a far higher figure of highway fatalities for China of more than 256,000 for 2018 - more than 4X the official figure.

For reference, the U.S. reports more than 35,000 highway fatalities for 2018, while the WHO estimates U.S. highway fatalities at closer to 40,000. Again, for perspective, there are disputes over the U.S. totals related to counting fatalities that occur more than 30 days after a fatal traffic event and counting fatalities that result from crashes that occur in driveways, parking lots and private roads. None of these fatalities are included in the U.S. tally of fatalities resulting in an undercount estimated at 3,000 annually, or more.

As further reference, India, the global leader in highway fatalities, reports more than 150,000 annual fatalities for 2018, while the WHO estimates the "real" total to be 2X as high at 300,000/year. This puts India's annual rate of highway deaths per 100,000 citizens at 22.6. By way of comparison, most European countries report an annual rate per 100,000 citizens of less than 10.0.

The unreliability of the data from China is just one of many reasons why China's domination of the automotive industry remains elusive. While one out of every three cars manufactured on the planet is made in China, more than 99% of those cars are sold within China.

Because China's highway fatality data is so incomplete and unreliable it is impossible to say what proportion of the massive number of fatalities can be tied to vehicles made with insufficient active and passive safety systems or other design shortcomings. The adoption of the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) which is designed to promote the adoption of safety systems correlated to the familiar "five-star safety" rating system remains rudimentary in China.

It is with this jaundiced eye that we turn our gaze to the reporting of coronavirus related fatalities in China. Experts are tracing the first infections and fatalities back to early December or maybe earlier still. The process of reporting infections and fatalities is as fraught and dubious as the reporting of highway fatalities.

Is it possible that China's reported number of fatalities - 3,300 - is actually more like 15,000? Does it matter? What matters is understanding the progression, treatment, symptons, and outcomes of the struggle with COVID-19. Imprecise or incomplete information can have a massive negative impact on strategies for combatting the pandemic.

The U.S. has its own struggle with the accuracy of reported COVID-19 infections and fatalities. Testing in the U.S. remains limited, in spite of the claims of the U.S. President. Testing for COVID-19 is not widespread and is reportedly limited to subjects showing symptoms. As a result, the U.S. has its own under-reporting problem vis-a-vis COVID-19. In spite of that, the U.S. has reported 10,000 fatalities from the disease, more than 3X China's total to date.

The U.S. government isn't waiting for China to come clean regarding the real magnitude, source, and nature of the pandemic currently decimating populations and economies around the world. The matter is important enough that the U.S. intelligence community is getting involved, according to multiple published reports.

China deserves kudos for its apparent success in stopping the coronavirus outbreak within the country's borders. But China will have a hard time overcoming the shame an embarrassment of failing to identify and respond to the crisis in a more timely and open manner. China will never lead the world in anything until it learns to be honest with itself, with its citizens, and with the world.

 
 
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