The death trap that is our roads

COVER STORY: Road safety is a collective responsibility that comes from mutual respect of all road users

 More than a million people die every year on the roads.  This is a figure of world roads put together.  And no less than 50 million sustain non-fatal injuries as a result of road crashes.  Globally, about 186,300 children die every year from road accidents.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO), every four minutes a child is prematurely lost on the roads of this world. “These traumatic events cause immeasurable suffering and grief and, at times, economic hardship for families and friends. In addition, they cost societies precious resources, diverting these from other pressing health and development challenges.”

Students crossing a busy road in Thimphu

Studies have found that road traffic death rates are twice as high in low-income countries as in high-income countries.  Children in low- and middle-income countries have a road traffic death rate that is nearly three times as high as those in high-income countries.

The theme of this year’s road safety week, from May 4 to 10, is “SaveKidsLives”.  According to records with Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA), there were 791 road mishap cases in 2014.

How safe are Bhutanese roads?  What system do we have in place to reduce the number of death due to road accidents?  What plan do we have to make roads safe, especially for children?

According to research, road traffic injury is the leading killer among children aged 15-17 years.  Especially in South and East Asia, road traffic death rates are twice as high in low-income countries as in high-income countries.

There is a need to identify gaps in road safety at national level and to set priority for future intervention.  On April 10, 2014, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on “Improving global road safety” to encourage inclusion of road safety in the post-2015 development agenda.

All member states in the South and East Asia region have lead agencies to address road traffic injuries.  It has been found that road traffic injury is a major public health problem in the South and East regions of Asia.  Countries in the regions have speed limit regulation or legislation.  However, only three countries (Indonesia, Maldives and Sri Lanka) have speed limits around schools to protect school going children.

Bhutan has speed limit rules too, but only on the highways.  At peak hours, especially in the morning when thousands of children go to school, traffic police are assisted by student volunteers to control the flow of vehicles on the roads.  But Bhutan has implemented measures to make road travel safe.  For example, the country has a rule that requires riders of two-wheeler motors to wear helmets.

But, with development come challenges.  Cities grow and road networks expand.  That requires improvement of road safety for all road users.  Lead agencies with authority must be strengthened with status and guidance, so that they are able to guide, develop, coordinate, implement and evaluate road safety issues, policies and programmes.

An RSTA official said that the office does not have adequate trained professionals.  So the focus is on creating safer roads for road users.

“But there is a misunderstanding. People seem to think that making road transport safe is our job. It is a collective responsibility that will bring about a desired change in the country.  If you have respect for other road users, safety can be achieved easily,” said an RSTA official, Karma Pemba.

But there are strategies that can be adopted to keep the vulnerable section of society, especially children, safe.   Sensible speed control can be implemented.  Likewise, stringent measures can be developed to reduce drinking and driving.  But the condition of the roads and their setting can be improved to reduce accidents.  What is important above all is for the lead agencies to have adequate trained professional to inspect road design and vehicle conditions.

“So much can be improved. Accidents can be lessened by much if we’re a little more concerned,” said a Namgay Dendup, a parent, who reaches his 6-year old daughter to school everyday and brings her home. “Drivers are quite reckless. I’m always worried.”

Safety begins with vehicle and road conditions, said Karma Pemba. “But we’re running short of trained professionals. We could certainly do more to make our roads safe.”

By Jigme Wangchuk

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