Drivers are more likely to die in a car crash in Cuba than in Florida

20 people were injured on Feb. 15 when a truck carrying journalists, athletes and officials during a cycling competition flipped on a notoriously dangerous road near the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.
20 people were injured on Feb. 15 when a truck carrying journalists, athletes and officials during a cycling competition flipped on a notoriously dangerous road near the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. Sierra Maestra newspaper

If you think driving in Miami is scary, consider this: drivers have a higher chance of dying in a car crash in Cuba than in Florida.

Cuba reports a traffic accident every 47 minutes, even though the island has one of the smallest fleets of vehicles in the region.

And every 12 hours, a Cuban dies on the road.

The 11,187 accidents reported in Cuba in 2017 left 750 dead and more than 8,000 injured, Interior Ministry Lt. Col. Roberto Rodríguez Fernández, head of the National Traffic Directorate, told government media recently.

That number of accidents is tiny compared to Florida, which reported 391,961 collisions in 2017. But Florida has a lower mortality rate per accident — one death per 132 traffic accidents — even though 20.5 million vehicles were registered in the state in 2017.

In contrast, traffic accidents were the fifth leading cause of death in Cuba, and the first among people between 15 and 29 years old. For every 14 accidents, one person dies on the island.

Last week, was one of the most lethal in recent years, with nine dead and almost 100 injured in six reported accidents.

Six people died on Feb. 14 when a car and a cargo truck crashed on Cuba's main east-west highway in the central province of Villa Clara. The following day, 40 passengers were injured when the bus they were on crashed on the same highway further east in Ciego de Avila.

The next day, another 20 people were injured when a truck carrying journalists, athletes and officials during a cycling competition flipped on a notoriously dangerous road near the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.

On Friday, a triple collision of two trucks and a tractor on a road in Villa Clara caused a dozen injuries. And on Sunday, three more were killed and 21 injured when another truck flipped near Santiago.

The number of accidents in Cuba has been rising steadily in recent years because of the deteriorating state of the island’s highways and vehicles.

In 2017, there were 292 more accidents than in the 2016, although the number of dead dropped by 17 and the injured by 210.

According to the most recent data of the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), from 2015, “technical defects” of vehicles was number 12 on the list of accident causes, headed by failing to respect the right of way and losing control of the vehicles. But the same year, Rodríguez told the Granma newspaper otherwise. According to the official, vehicular malfunctions was the fourth leading cause of traffic accidents, “a rather complex problem if we consider that several generations of vehicles, some with 60 and 70 years of use, circulate in the country.”

The ruinous state of Cuba's streets and roads was not mentioned on the list, even though a Transportation Ministry official reported last summer that 76 percent of the roads are “technically in bad to regular shape, and the traffic signal system is inadequate.”

In two of the accidents last week, the drivers were reported to have lost control of their vehicles, suggesting breakdowns of equipment.

One Cuban posted this message on Cubadebate, a government-controlled site: “We should not try to cover the sun with a finger. There's negligence, errors, indolence, even a lack of conscience among the drivers. But that's not the biggest or the main problem. The real causes are the bad state of the roads (all) and vehicles that are super, hyper, mega plus old and in bad shape because of their years of use and bad maintenance.”

ONEI has stopped publishing the number of vehicles on the island, but in 2010 the island reported about 17,100 buses, 3,075 taxis and 12,787 cargo vehicles. No numbers are available for cars owned by private individuals or the government.

The Castro government recently allowed private citizens to buy cars, but the prices are astronomical by Cuban standards — $239,250 for a Peugeot 4008, for example.

Cuba now has large numbers of U.S. made cars from the 1950s and beat-up trucks and cars imported from the former Soviet Union. The government has recently imported Chinese buses and Russian cars and trucks, but the financial crisis has limited the purchases.

All those problems are compounded by a mass transportation system that often relies on old trucks to transport people, especially in the center and eastern parts of the island.

The problem is so significant that Granma published a front-page story Tuesday under the headline, “A Cemetery on Asphalt?” The article describes the dangers of massive potholes along Cuba's main highway as well as the “proliferation of tractors and horse-drawn carts with their usual lack of lights, the absence of barriers in spots that require them, the total absence of fences, the many rural roads that cross the highway and the existence of virtual paddocks along the sides, where dozens of untethered animals graze by day and night and at times even rest on the asphalt.”

The national Highway Safety Commission, which has branches in each of the provinces, has worked to cut down on the number of accidents, but the results have been poor.

“The sizable increase in traffic accidents in the province of Sancti Spiritus over the past two years shows that the actions adopted in this region to avoid such events have been insufficient and inefficient,” the provincial commission was quoted as saying in the local Escambray newspaper.

The commission recommended that the Agriculture Ministry stop giving cows to farmers who do not own land, “given the high number of accidents caused by animals lose on the public roads.”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres