The number of Americans who study abroad in credit-earning programs has more than tripled in the last two decades to reach a high of nearly 304,500 in the 2013-14 academic year, and the number studying in non-European countries has nearly doubled in the last decade to 118,625, the Institute of International Education said.
“The problem is educating students in something they are not used to thinking about,” said Inés DeRomaña. She is director of international health, safety and emergency response for the University of California system’s Education Abroad Program, which sends 5,600 students, from all 10 campuses, overseas annually, including to remote areas.
Road fatalities are a risk for young people everywhere. They are the leading cause of death for teens and young adults in the United States and worldwide, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization show. But the concern for educators is that students heading abroad may not consider some uniquely local risks of road travel — particularly in low- and middle-income countries, where W.H.O. figures indicate about 90 percent of the globe’s road-traffic deaths occur.
The particular challenges in many parts of the world involve poor roads and infrastructure, weak traffic laws, poorly trained drivers and vehicles that are old and not maintained.
In the United States, there were 10.6 road fatalities per 100,000 population of all ages in 2013, the W.H.O. said, compared with 19.0 in Guatemala and 26.2 in Ghana.
And while the number of American students who die in vehicle accidents abroad is not tracked, the State Department says road crashes are the top killer of healthy Americans of all ages who travel abroad. The total is about 750 deaths in the last three years.
“Travelers may know that the environment may be different in foreign countries, but they do not realize how different,” said Will Cocks, of the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Ms. Nuth’s father says such differences were a factor in her death. “What’s most upsetting for me is I’m pretty sure that if the bus had had seatbelts, she would have been wearing one,’’ he said. ‘‘She always wore a seatbelt.”
He said American Embassy staff in Guatemala City told him that private companies often buy small tourist buses and minivans with seatbelts but later install an extra row of seats and remove the unmatched belts. “Effectively,’’ Mr. Nuth said, “all those companies are compromising passenger safety for profit.”
Administrators recognize that young Americans abroad are vulnerable. Many young adults feel invincible, so they tend to be carefree travelers, said Gary Rhodes, associate dean and director of the Center for Global Education at California State University at Dominguez Hills.
Some college and university officials have responded to the perceived dangers by enhancing or creating administrative positions to prepare students for study abroad. Efforts include orientation and training before departure and briefings on arrival by local staff or partners.
Although many colleges take health and safety more seriously today than even five years ago, Dr. Rhodes said, “there are still other campuses with no full-time study-abroad staff.”
And many students are not on university-sponsored programs, but instead are participating in internships, volunteer work or independent study that leave them operating largely on their own wits.
The road dangers in many developing countries include crowded buses, and pedestrians sharing roads with animals, carts and other vehicles. And particularly in rural areas, bus and car travel at night is made more perilous by drivers operating with the headlights off, erroneously believing that it saves vehicle batteries.
“Students want to experience everything like a local,” Ms. DeRomaña said, and so they often choose the cheapest and fastest mode or route, not the safest. “The last thing on their minds is to consider that a road accident could get nasty very quickly.”
Many programs discourage students from driving or riding on motorcycles and recommend that faculty leaders hire a reputable local driver who knows the region’s roads, laws and customs.
William & Mary vets transportation companies to determine which ones it can recommend for its students who study abroad, checking safety records and fleet maintenance.
“Before, it was just ‘Get on a plane and go,’” said Nick Vasquez, William & Mary’s international travel and security manager. “Now, we give students the tools to make sure they have a positive experience, to make smart choices.”
Noëlle Damon, whose daughter Zoë died in a crash in Costa Rica in 2011 while studying tropical forestry on a program offered through the State University of New York at Binghamton, said the school did not do enough to prepare Zoë, who had been warned of the dangers of malaria and snake bites but not of bad road conditions.
The van Zoë Damon was riding in lost control and tumbled down a 60-foot ravine into a rapidly flowing river, in part because of an eroded and poorly maintained road, Ms. Damon said. Initially, the scheduling of the trip during rainy season concerned her, “but there’s an assumption that the school makes every effort to keep children safe,” she said. “As a result, there is a tendency to trust rather than to question.”
Ryan Yarosh, a spokesman for SUNY Binghamton, said by email that Ms. Damon’s death had been “a tragedy felt deeply by the entire campus community.”
In the years since, he said, the university hired a risk manager for the study abroad programs and formed a committee on international travel safety. Faculty directors receive annual training, and the programs are required to use only professional drivers.
Elsewhere, some bereaved parents have begun to press for changes and demand more information and accountability.
Ros Thackurdeen and Elizabeth Brenner, who each had a son killed while studying abroad — although not in road accidents — recently started ProtectStudentsAbroad, a website to help families obtain the safety records of study abroad programs.
Proposed legislation, the Ravi Thackurdeen Safe Students Study Abroad Act, named for Ms. Thackurdeen’s son — who drowned in 2012 while studying in Costa Rica — is in the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training. The bill would require colleges and universities to report all harmful incidents during study abroad programs and provide safety preparation beforehand.
Rochelle Sobel, founder of the Association for Safe International Road Travel, said that while most students have positive experiences abroad, many deaths could be prevented. Her group supports the pending legislation and is advocating that the State Department collect information about injuries, ages of victims and specific collision locations.
Her son Aron died in a 1995 bus crash in Turkey with 22 others, two weeks before he was to graduate from medical school. The driver had worked too many hours and had been speeding, the road was identified as hazardous “but no government personnel did anything to fix it,” and the emergency medical team did not arrive in time, Ms. Sobel said.
“It’s you and me who are responsible for allowing conditions to be unsafe,’’ she said. “It’s our responsibility to protect our children.”