Crash Course

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Road accidents-currently killing on the scale of malaria-will continue to rob more families of their loved ones and their livelihoods, as the number of those killed doubles to over two million per year in 2030. This message launched the United Nations Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020 this year.

With an alarming statistics on road accidents claiming 1734 lost lives and 11000 injured from 2009 to 2010, these tragic deaths continue to be a neglected epidemic in Nepal. 

The recent incident of a speeding bus in western Nepal killing at least 15 people was charged on poorly maintained vehicles and roads. A few months ago, four people, including two women, were killed when a jeep fell into a gorge in Nepal’s western Doti district. 

According to the World Health Organization, speeding is the single most common traffic rule violation committed by drivers and contributes to up to one third of all road traffic crashes. Inexperienced young adults driving with blood alcohol concentration levels above 0.05g/dl have a 2.5 times higher risk of a crash compared with older, more experienced drivers. 

Pedestrians, cyclists and riders of motorized two-wheelers remain to be the most vulnerable road users. The death of noted biologist and devoted cyclist Pralad Yonzon, after a collision with a truck on Ring Road, reminds us on the scant attention given to road safety.

Looking at a bigger scale, road accidents block economic and social development. The estimated cost of road accidents in the developing world is now $100 billion a year exceeding the total annual amount received in development assistance. These costs are especially damaging for countries struggling with the problems of development.

Casualties affect mostly economically active persons and have a ripple effect on their dependents, causing suffering and poverty. For each road traffic injury death, there are dozens of survivors who are left with short-term or permanent disabilities that may result in continuing restrictions on their physical functioning, psychosocial consequences or a reduced quality of life.

Road survivors absorb massive financial burdens and they tend to stay in the hospital longer than average patients. Injured people often suffer physical pain and emotional anguish that is beyond any economic compensation. Permanent disability, such as paraplegia, quadriplegia, loss of eyesight, or brain damage, can deprive an individual of the ability to achieve even minor goals and result in dependence on others for economic support and routine physical care.

Many of those killed or injured are breadwinners of their families, leaving behind a traumatic orphaned family who will struggle to pick up the pieces of their lives. Disabled victims from road tragedy face the dilemma of providing food in the table, sending their children to school or supporting their family.

In Nepal, road safety laws are inadequate. With new roads recently opened, the limited number of police is constantly challenged to combat speed and drunk driving, check on the use of motorcycle helmets and reprimand traffic violators. 

Aside from the newly completed Kathmandu Bhaktapur section Arniko Highway, there is no separate lane for motorcycles on any roads of the country. This section of Arniko Highway has 4 lanes for vehicles, 2 lanes for motorcycle separated by road paint and 2 service tracks. Pedestrians have to share traffic space with four- wheeled vehicles, such as cars, buses and trucks. 

Improving road safety means that we need to understand the issues better. The weak enforcement, inadequate vehicle inspection facilities and irresponsible behavior of drivers and road users have been identified as among the major reasons restricting road safety initiatives in Nepal. 

Public buses in Nepal are generally overloaded with passengers and goods. The low fares charged by these forms of transport are affordable to poor people. The vehicles are also convenient, as they will stop anywhere to pick up or drop off passengers, and they do not adhere to any fixed time schedules. Against these advantages for poorer people in terms of mobility, there is a marked lack of safety. The drivers speed, are aggressive in their road behavior and lack respect for other road users. The long hours that drivers are forced to work result in fatigue, sleep deprivation and reckless driving. 

All the same, a strategy must be found to regulate this industry and make it into a safe and organized form of public transport. Such a strategy must address the safety of road users, the labor rights of drivers and the economic interests of the vehicle owners.

Policy-makers should recognize effective measures that are designed to force compliance and influence a change in behavior. Since 1995, road safety audit is already mandatory in Nepal but this has not greatly reduced conflicting points in road junctions and intersections or encouraged appropriate speed and motorist behavior using traffic signs. 

Mapping who are at risks and designing a road safety strategy are also important elements of road safety design. Older people are often underrepresented in traffic fatalities, especially as vulnerable road users. Older pedestrians in particular are associated with a very high rate of road injury and death. This is mainly due to the increased physical frailty of the elderly. Given the same type of impact, an older person is more likely to be injured or killed than a younger one.

The growth in the number of motor vehicles in Nepal is central, not only to road safety, but also to other issues such as pollution, the quality of life in urban and rural areas, the depletion of natural resources, and social justice.

As motorization increases, many low-income and middle-income countries may face a growing toll of road traffic injuries, with potentially devastating consequences in human, social and economic terms.

The problem of road traffic crashes and injuries in Nepal is growing both in absolute numbers and in relative terms. It is a serious public health and development issue, taxing health care systems and undermining their ability to devote limited resources to other areas of need. 
Accurate data are essential for prioritizing public health issues, monitoring trends and assessing intervention programs. Nepal has inadequate information systems on road traffic injury, making it difficult to realize the full nature of the problem and thus gain the attention that is required from policy-makers and decision- makers.

Nepal’s government can help foster stronger collaboration between different groups that collect and keep data and evidence on road traffic injuries. With such improved collaboration and improved management of data, significant reductions can be achieved in the magnitude of road traffic casualties.

The health, social and economic impacts of road accidents are substantial. WHO study says that road accidents cost governments, on average, between 1% and 2% of their gross national product. The social costs – more difficult to quantify – exact a heavy toll on victims, their families, friends and communities. 

Road accidents should not become a major source of death due to lack of proper planning, management and regulation. Road traffic injuries are the 11th leading cause of death and the 9th leading cause of disability-adjusted life years lost worldwide. Without new or improved interventions, road traffic injuries will be the third leading cause of death by the year 2020.

Roadways should fulfill the role for which they were intended- to improve lives and reduce poverty. Every investment spent on road safety equates to lives saved, jobs maintained, and secured families. 

This article was published in Republica on March 3, 2012


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