Nearly 1,800 people were killed in road traffic accidents all over Nepal in 2014-15. And although the Indian fuel blockade will bring down the figure for this year, it is sure to climb up again when the blockade is lifted.
The reason for the high fatality rate is poorly maintained and risky mountain roads, overloading of vehicles, lack of road discipline and poor training of drivers. New Zealand, with much more traffic than Nepal in a similar land area, saw only 253 road fatalities in 2013.
As low- or middle-income countries like Nepal motorise, often at the expense of road safety, growing road traffic fatality and associated losses to families and communities have become a matter of grave concern globally as delegates to an international conference on road safety in the Brazilian capital heard recently.
Globally, over 1.25 million people were killed and millions injured in road traffic accidents in 2013, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Global Status Report on Road Safety 2015. And road accidents are the leading cause of death of young people between 18-29 years of age. Those getting killed are therefore often breadwinners.
As Nepal bears the brunt of blockade of the Indo-Nepal border, road traffic rules and safety issues are clearly being overlooked. But even at normal times, traffic rules are often violated and reckless driving is the norm rather than the exception.
The shortage of public transport caused by the fuel crisis has made overloaded vehicles common, and passenger buses from border towns often carry petrol, diesel and LPG cylinders on their roofs. On the evening of October 21, a bus carrying petrol and LP cylinders crashed in Khaskusma of Banke along the East-West highway, killing at least 8 people. “It was like a scene of a bad plane crash,” a local official told BBC Nepali Service. “The overturned bus was badly burnt with several passengers inside.”
The WHO global status report on road safety cites Nepal’s crackdown on drunk-driving and helmet use by motorcycle drivers as two areas where the country has made progress. However, only drivers are required to use helmets, and often it is the pillion rider who is killed in an accident.
Drunk-driving tests are being carried out, but not with proper equipment, and there are no rules on the permissible amount of alcohol in the blood. And the most bizarre rule about Nepal is this: a speed limit of 80 km/h for both urban and rural roads. School and residential areas lack speed limit rules and enforcement. Nepal does not have any official motorway or any motorway speed limit. The only wide road from Koteswor to Surya Binayak is notorious for fatal accidents.
The WHO report points out that Nepal does have a national seat-belt law, and the rule is applied only to the driver and not to the front and rear occupants. Not surprisingly, the country also doesn’t have a national child restraint law, neither is there any restriction on children sitting in the front seat.
Although arbitrary fines are occasionally slapped, Nepal also doesn’t have a national law on mobile phone use while driving, says the report. For a country where highway crashes are so common, Nepal doesn’t have enough trauma care facilities along roads. Nor does Nepal have an emergency room surveillance system. There are no emergency access telephone numbers that are essential to saving lives during or after road traffic rash.
Of the country’s nearly 1.2 million total registered vehicles as of 2011, nearly 900,000 are motorised two or three wheelers. But there are no front impact standards, or electronic stability control, says the report, and airbags aren’t mandatory on new cars.
Worryingly, no data exists on deaths by road user category for Nepal. And little has been done to safeguard the needs of the pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists – the most vulnerable road users.
The UN’s post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have set targets to halve deaths and injuries from road traffic crashes by 2020. Experts and officials agree that it will be extremely challenging for countries like Nepal to reduce road fatality rates and meet those targets within five years.
Etienne Krug of WHO told reporters in Brasilia: “The continuing inaction on road safety has to end.”
||Surendra Phuyal is a journalist with BBC Nepali Service. @surendraphuyal.
Dramatic fall in fatalities, Sahina Shrestha
Better safe than sorry, Kunda Dixit
Nepal's highways of death, Sunir Pandey
Road kill, Duncan Maru
6 years of road traffic accidents, Sunir Pandey
Compensation by accident, Dewan Rai