Editor's note: We added a few paragraphs to the end of this story at 23:25hrs, after readers pointed out some errors in our original data.
Getting behind the wheel of a car and taking to the streets of Bucharest is not for the faint hearted. I’ve just returned from a few days in Romania, and at times it felt like the locals took their driving lessons in Grand Theft Auto.
Cars would pass incredibly close and at high speed; traffic lights would be like starting blocks, with five cars positioning themselves side-by-side to compete to slot into two lanes of traffic; and, of course, there was little risk of the indicator bulbs ever burning out. It’s no wonder that, according to the FCO, in 2013 Romania experienced 9.3 road deaths per 100,000 people, compared to just 2.8 in the UK.
Coincidentally, I have also been reading the 2012 book Why Nations Fail, a treatise arguing that the key to economic progress is down to a country’s institutions. Economic growth, the authors believe, only happens when political and economic institutions are “inclusive” instead of “extractive”.
In other words, countries succeed when their economies aren’t based upon the exploitation of the people by a small group of elites, and where there are political mechanisms that help exploit talent and ideas. In that way, anyone who invents a new technology or a more efficient method of producing something knows that the fruits of their labour won’t just be expropriated by a dictator. This requires both a state strong enough to enforce the rules (a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, in the jargon), and also a state that is also bounded by the same rules and unable to act arbitrarily: a respect for “Rule of Law”.
And it was just as a Dacia Duster thundered in front of me, crossing precariously close to my front bumper as it moved from the outer to the inner lane of a three-lane highway, that I wondered if the mayhem on Romania’s roads might also be able to tell us something about its development.
Crunching the Numbers
To find out, I took the World Health Organisation’s 2013 data on road deaths per 100,000 people in different countries (which seems a sensible proxy for quality of driving), and compared it to the scores given by the World Justice Project on Rule of Law in 2015. This latter score is generated by surveying 100,000 people and 2,400 experts on 44 indicators like the openness of government, corruption, fundamental rights and justice.
Pairing up the 94 countries that are included in both datasets, it reveals that – amazingly – there appears to be a correlation between the two. For the stats nerds out there, that’s a Pearson correlation coefficient of -0.68.
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Comparing traffic data to how much citizens trust each other [see correction, below] creates an even more striking correlation. Using data collected by the OECD, it reveals a correlation of -0.81.
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So it does really appear as though the craziness of a nation’s motorists may tell us something bigger. This hypothesis might also explain why on my last trip to Lithuania, a country that has a similarly troubled past, drivers seem to treat the hard shoulder as an overtaking lane.
What does it mean?
Romania has had a tumultuous history, thanks to Communism and the excesses of former President Nicolae Ceausescu, a man who in his later years took his inspiration from North Korea. Since the revolution in 1989, the country is now a functioning democracy and a member of the EU and NATO, but it still isn’t quite on the same level as western Europe: according to the 2013 score given by the World Justice Project for rule of law, Romania only scores around 62 per cent. (Britain is up on 78 per cent, and Norway wins with 86 per cent. Afghanistan is on 35 per cent.)
This data suggests that such numbers are mirrored in the roads. Traffic cops are very visible in downtime Bucharest, but it appears that few motorists worry about them: rule breaking is so endemic, they are clearly unable to fully enforce the law. (The “state” in this analogy isn’t strong enough to enforce them). The aggressive driving might also suggest that motorists have little faith that others are likely to respect the supposed rules.
This isn’t to imply that correlation means causation: there is also a correlation with average income, for instance, but both of these things are essentially measures of how successful a country is. And of course, we shouldn’t rule out that it could just be one massive coincidence.
But in any case, at least on this initial glance, it certainly appears that there is a link between the two, whether they are causally related or whether they are merely outcomes of the same parent phenomenon. If I’m right, and this isn’t a coincidence, then it suggests that the state of a country’s roads could also act as a neat heuristic for understanding the quality of a country’s government.
And this kind of makes sense too, as roads are almost a perfect microcosm of what states do on a larger scale. On a road network, you have many different actors all behaving in a self-interested manner, trying to reach their own goals – and in order to manage this efficiently, there are rules in place to try to try and make the whole thing more efficient. If, for some reason, people decide not to follow these rules, then the whole thing breaks down – and the result is chaos.
A correction, of sorts
I originally interpreted the OECD data in the second graph above as a measure of trust in government. But since this post went viral, some far more knowledgeable people have double-checked my data and spotted that this was an error. A reporter from Quartz correctly identified that the OECD trust data was in fact a measure of trust in other people.
The first comparison, on data from the World Justice Project still supports my interpretation – so the general thrust of the piece, in my view, remains correct (all standard caveats about causation excepted).
And even the OECD data in the next chart also conceivably tells us something interesting about government, albeit at one order further removed than we thought. What this data tells us is which societies are culturally low trust, and which are high trust. I think it would be reasonable to hypothesise would be itself closely correlated with trust in institutions – somethingy backed up by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (p43-45).
So though it involves jumping through an extra hoop, I’m fairly sure this interpretation of the data holds up.
James O'Malley tweets as @psythor.