The other global pandemic: road fatalities
Nearly 2,800 people were killed on Nepal’s roads in the past year: that averages at seven fatalities per day. No data is available for the number of people who suffer such accidents, but thousands are injured seriously enough to be disabled for life. Yet, this pandemic of road accidents gets much less media attention than COVID-19.
Actress and model Mahima Silwal was headed to Chitwan for her wedding along with her sister Sharmila on 12 February when their scooter was hit by a speeding bus. Mahima was pronounced dead at a nearby clinic. Her sister later died in a Kathmandu hospital.
On 26 February CPN-ML General Secretary C P Mainali and several of his family members were injured in a car crash near Bardibas. On 2 March, former Constituent Assembly member Dharma Prasad Ghimire was killed in a crash in Bagdogra of India.
News of bus crashes and traffic accidents do not even make it to the news line-up of the mainstream media anymore, unless they are celebrities. Yet the numbers killed on Nepal’s roads in the past ten years exceeds the total 17,000 who died during the armed conflict. In fact, road traffic accidents ranked as the number one cause of death among children between 5 and 14 years of age in Nepal.
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“There has been a big expansion of new roads, but unfortunately highway infrastructure and road discipline enforcement have not kept pace. We need to work on implementation day-by-day,” Minister for Physical Infrastructure and Transport Basanta Kumar Nembang told Nepali Times in Stockholm while attending the Third Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety here.
Along with 140 countries attending the conference, Nepal committed to meeting the World Health Organisation (WHO) goal to halve the number of road fatalities by 2030. According to the WHO’s own statistics, at least 7,000 people were killed worldwide during the two days of the conference – whereas the total known fatalities due to COVID-19 in the past two months was 4,635 as of Thursday.
The WHO was holding the Stockholm conference even while the coronavirus was spreading out of China to the rest of the world, but road traffic accidents have long been an endemic cause of mortality and morbidity the world over. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Stockholm that it was “an outrage” that so many people were dying on the world’s roads every day.
“Most road traffic deaths and injuries can be prevented, using tried and tested strategies, and everyone should be a part of the solution,” he told the gathering. But even as the conference came to a close on 20 February, the issue was already being eclipsed by the worldwide coverage of the COVID-19 spread.
Since then, there have been at least 150 deaths on Nepal’s roads – mainly from overcrowded jeeps falling off poorly-built mountain roads, or buses overspeeding on highways lacking basic safety features like centreline guard-rails. In the cities, 90% of fatalities involve motorcyclists or pedestrians, indicating poor safety enforcement and low awareness.
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WHO says the fatality rate is highest in low- and middle-income South Asian countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Poor countries account for 93% of highway fatalities in the world.
The United Nations observed 2011-2020 as a Global Decade on Road Safety, proposing to stabilise road traffic deaths and injuries around the world. There were mixed results, with partial success in ensuring better legislation, safer roads and vehicles, mandatory use of helmets and seatbelts. and reduced speeds.
The International Road Assessment Programme is trying to raise awareness by rating roads by their safety records, and by giving ‘vaccines for roads’ to increase safety features. But very little of the infrastructure promoted by the program exist on Nepal’s roads, most of which are rated only one star out of five. Haphazard road construction in the past decade has not just disfigured the countryside with landslides, but also increased the rate of accidents.
More than 200 children were killed on Sweden’s roads every year in the 1970s, but that figure now hovers at about 15. Opening the conference, Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf said there were tested ways of saving lives.
“Road safety should now be linked to other sustainability challenges, such as global health, climate change, equality, poverty and human rights,” the king said.
There are now nearly 2.4 million vehicles on Nepal’s roads, and a majority of them are two-wheelers, with 800,000 motorcycles in Kathmandu Valley alone. As the number of vehicles increases, so will the fatality rate.
Puspa Raj Pant, a Nepali researcher at the University of West of England in Bristol, is concerned about the lack of pedestrian crossings, cycle lanes and traffic signals in Nepal as well as lights or crash barriers along winding mountain roads.
“We have vaccines to fight killer diseases, but no medicines to reduce road fatalities,” he said. “Education, improved infrastructure and safer vehicles hold the key to improving road safety.”