SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – High school student Adonis Tineo lay motionless in an overflowing emergency room on a recent afternoon after slamming his motorcycle into a truck laden with rice as he tried to pass a minivan.
He was driving without a license or a helmet on this Caribbean country’s chaotic streets. On top of that, he admitted, he was going the wrong way, against traffic.
“The truck hit me so hard,” said Tineo, who started using a motorcycle when he was 12. “They don’t stop.”
The now-17-year-old was just one of an estimated 25 traffic victims who arrive at the Dario Contreras hospital every day. At another hospital in the capital, doctors treat about 120 accident victims daily, mostly motorcycle drivers.
Such accidents, in fact, are shaping up as a major health crisis in this country of 11 million people. The Dominican Republic is effectively the deadliest nation anywhere for drivers, second only to the tiny South Pacific island of Niue, where each death among its roughly 1,400 inhabitants spikes the fatality average. For every 100,000 inhabitants in the Dominican Republic, 42 die every year from traffic accidents, according to the World Health Organization.
It’s not unusual in the Dominican Republic to see up to five people, including babies, scrunched atop a motorcycle, or for drivers to carry all types of cargo, including heavy gasoline tanks, atop their bikes. Motorists also dodge hundreds of dilapidated cars and trucks as they zoom across lanes without warning, fail to stop at red lights and go against traffic, often at high speed and sometimes even taking over sidewalks.
The problem is so bad that the U.S. State Department dedicates 10 paragraphs on its travel website to warning visitors about the hazards of driving in the country. U.S. officials recommend that tourists hire a professional driver when visiting, but if that’s not an option: “Be aware that the utmost caution and defensive driving are necessary.”
Traffic deaths are the top killers of men in the Dominican Republic, with many of the accidents involving motorcycles, said Felix Hernandez, who oversees operations at the Ney Arias Lora trauma center.
“This is one of our biggest epidemics,” Hernandez said. “We must strengthen traffic regulations by implementing penalties because that’s where it hits people hard.”