On a trip from Butwal to Kathmandu last week, we counted 17 major accidents. Carcasses of dead buses and trucks had been scraped to the side of the road. On the Mugling stretch, rusting skeletons of buses lay among the boulders where they had plunged from the highway.
Even by Nepal's own horrific standards of highway safety, November 2005 broke all records. Between 15-30 November more than 56 people died in highway accidents across the country. Twenty-seven of these deaths occurred druing three different accidents on a single day: 30 November.
It has now got to a point where the fatal incidents can't be called 'accidents' anymore because most are due to negligence, carelessness and a blatant disregard for traffic norms.
The most dangerous stretch of road by far in Nepal is the 36 km between Mugling and Naryangarh. The highway was blasted out of the sheer rock face of the Trisuli gorge 25 years ago and is a major artery that sees 1,100 vehicles a day. But the road is also narrow, has hairpin turns and steep drops.
In November and December there were 18 major accidents on this route in which 36 people died, 49 were seriously injured and 32 needed medical treatment. The Roads Department has pinpointed nine red alert along the stretch where most of the accidents occur and most of these spots lie at a sharp bend after a straight stretch.
The rate of accidents has increased after the highway was rehabilitated recently. "Last year when the road was not in good shape everybody was careful but after it was repaved drivers are speeding," notes Prem Joshi, inspector at the Traffic Branch of the Department of Roads in Chitwan.
Indeed, speeding and overloading are the two main causes of fatal accidents in Nepal. Other reasons are landslides, poor condition of roads, bad design of roads and human activity along the roadsides. In terms of number of vehicles, Nepal already has the highest rate of accidents in South Asia.
The Department of Roads (DoR) has established a specialised Road and Traffic Unit that does a regular safety audit of the kingdom's highway network as a preventive measure to detect potential safety hazards before the road is open to traffic.
"When the Tribhuban Rajpath was opened in early 60's there were accidents every day because of its improper geometry and structure," says Devendra Dhar Pradhananga a DoR engineer for the past 40 years. "identifying and rectifying such defects in the design stage is a much more effective way to reduce road accidents."
The standard for traffic signs and road markings are very poor and improving it would reduce the number of accidents. But by far the most important factor is training and awareness of drivers and roadside residents. "The Road Safety Audit report problems and make recommendations on how they can be remedied," explains head of DoR's Road and Traffic Unit at Babar Mahal, Saroj Kumar Pradhan.
In Bharatpur, a Road Accident Investigation and Minimising Committee was set up after the spate of accidents in November. It concluded that the main reasons were driver negligence, overloading, absence of centreline, roads tilted towards the river and lack of coordination with local administration.
Hum Bahadur Dhungel was the driver of the bus that plunged into the Trisuli on 28 November in which six passengers were killed. Dhungel is still in custody at the Chitwan district police office. "I tried to overtake, it was my mistake and I couldn't see the vehicle from opposite direction and when I hit the brakes, the bus skidded and rolled down into the river. I threw myself out of the door and survived."
Dhungel is lucky he is alive. Most drivers never make it. Even those who are injured die on the way to the hospital in Bharatpur or Kathmandu which takes hours.
|16 November||Daunnme, Nabalparasi||24 injured||4 killed|
|17 November||Salyanmara, Argakanchi||5 injured||2 killed|
|19 November||Pakhahalali, Dolakha||10 injured|
|24 November||Kalikholam, Mugling||31 injured||14 killed|
|27 November||Chandanda, Chautara||14 injured|
|28 November||Darechok, Chitwan||18 injured||6 killed|
|30 November||Swargadwari||19 injured||16 killed|
|Deurali, Palpa||8 injured||9 killed|
With the commissioning of the Highway Community Hospital at Malekhu next week there is hope that the number of fatalities along the Prithbi Highway will be reduced.
Many of those who are killed in highway accidents on this dangerous stretch of road would have lived if proper medical attention was available nearby. Many injured die on the way to hospitals in Kathmandu.
The hospital and trauma centre was built by the Accident Victim Relief Association of Dhading and Friends of Nepal with Rs 12.5 million in support from the Italian charity, Amici Dal Monte Rosa. The hospital is fully-equipped with an x-ray unit, emergency room, operation theatre and laboratory.
The hospital has two doctors and three nurses and will also serve adjoining villages in Dhading and also has an ambulance to rush more serious cases to Kathmandu.