Deadly Dasain on Nepal’s highways
The death toll in a bus plunge in Mugu has reached 32. Twenty-four people died on the spot and eight more during rescue and treatment. The rest, 11 passengers airlifted by helicopters for treatment in Nepalganj, are in critical condition.
The overloaded bus lost control and plunged down a steep slope near Rara Lake at about 12:30PM on Tuesday. Initial investigation points to brake failure as the cause of the accident. Most of the 43 passengers were travelling from Nepalganj to Mugu’s Gamgadhi to celebrate Dasain with their families.
Also on Tuesday, a passenger bus from Dhangadi to Bajura also fell off the highway, injuring 16. On Monday, another jeep careened off the road and fell off a cliff killing at least eight. It was carrying passengers from Kathmandu travelling to Ghandruk to celebrate Dasain holidays.
Nearly 50 people have died on Nepal’s highways in the last two days. The causes range from overloading because of the festival, negligence of drivers, mechanical failure, over-speeding, poor road condition because of a very wet monsoon, and an increasing number of unregulated private vehicles.
Road Traffic Accidents (RTA) in Nepal’s highways are so commonplace that most Nepalis are desensitied by the numbers. An average of seven individuals die in road accidents a day in Nepal and 40 are injured. In fact, more people die on Nepal's highways every year than in all natural disasters combined.
In 2019, there were nearly 13,000 highway and road accidents in which 2,736 people lost their lives and 10,731 were seriously injured. Those who survive more often than not have traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, requiring long-term or life-long rehabilitative care.
The total accidents had come down in 2020-2021 because of the pandemic and lockdowns, but is rising again as things get back to normal.
According to the WHO Global Status on Road Safety 2018, only 8 in 100,000 people die of highway and road accidents in developed countries, but the ratio is 27.5 in low-income nations like Nepal.
Most of the accidents in Nepal can be prevented by just maintaining the roads and avoiding reckless driving. According to the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport study, 76% of highway accidents are caused by drivers who do not follow traffic rules or are speeding.
To control over-speeding and reckless driving, traffic police at the accident-prone Satdobato-Gwarko road have now deployed speed guns. They penalise up to 100 commuters a day, many of them in motorcycles that are going at 90km/hour on the road with a speed limit of 50km/hour.
A parliamentary committee that had studied RTAs in Nepal two years ago and concluded it as the ninth biggest killer in the country has also given directives to mitigate the problem. But the state of Nepal’s accident-prone roads remains the same.
Adding to the challenge are floods and landslides during monsoon, made more frequent and destructive by climate change. Sections of major highways have been washed off, cutting off parts of remote Nepal from the rest of the country. Several accidents here don’t even make it to the news or after many days.
From July 2014-July 2019, there were a total of 54,000 road accidents in Nepal resulting in 12,000 deaths of people mostly in the age group 15-40 years.
Available studies reveal that in the last decade, the death rate due to traffic accidents has increased by a whopping 142% and accidents by 178%. Nepal is far from meeting the target set by the United Nations General Assembly to halve the number of road fatalities and injuries by 2030.
Last year’s annual report by the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) found that road traffic accidents in Nepal have increased by an annual average of 7% in 2017-18, 22% in 2018-19 and 17% in 2019-20.
The slight dip in 2019-20 is attributed to five months of Covid-19 lockdown when road fatalities declined by half to less than 700 in March-August 2020, compared to the same period last year. Ironically, hundreds of lives may have been saved by the pandemic.
But by the Dasain-Tihar festival in November 2020, with restrictions removed, the number of deaths on the roads again spiked to 242 after falling to 52 in May, much like this year.
For a country where roads are synonymous with development, more people lose their lives on the highways than by infectious diseases. The reason is the focus on quantity over quality, bad engineering and lack of maintenance.