Surging road deaths the flipside of Myanmar’s economic boom


A crowd gathers at Maha Bandoola Park in central Yangon on 4 April 2017 to hear about the new "Start With Me" Road safety campaign.

A crowd gathers at Maha Bandoola Park in central Yangon on 4 April 2017 to hear about the new "Start With Me" Road safety campaign.

Public health in Myanmar has been a story of slow but consistent progress, emerging from a dismal base far below its regional peers. The targets outlined in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals for the control of major infectious diseases have largely been met, alongside more limited reductions in infant and maternal mortality.

Soaring in the opposite direction are the rates of death and injury on Myanmar’s expanding road network.According to the Road Transport Administration Department, last year the country saw 17,384 road accidents, with 27,763 people injured and 4,887 dead. In 2015, 15,859 accidents killed 4,375 road users and injured 26,630.

The road death “epidemic, as some have called it, is among the ugly flipsides of Myanmar’s recent economic growth and the new opportunities available to its increasingly mobile citizens.

More tellingly, World Health Organization (WHO) estimates are almost triple the Myanmar government figures. In 2015, the WHO posited 20.3 road fatalities per 100,000 people—the second highest rate in Southeast Asia, after Thailand.

The yearly increases are building on a dramatic bump that followed the launch in 2011 of political and economic reforms, which promised to deliver Myanmar from decades of international isolation. Going by government figures, at present an average of around 12 people a day die in road accidents in Myanmar. In 2003, the death toll stood at only 2.3.

One of the early measures taken by the reformist administration of President Thein Sein was to relax restrictions on importing second-hand vehicles, in 2011, bringing relatively affordable Japanese models within the reach of new sections of the public.

According to 2016 figures from the Myanmar Port Authority, 670,000 cars had been imported since 2011. Yet, this number represents only a portion of the surge in vehicles: outside Yangon, motorised two-wheelers vastly outnumber cars.

Of the 6,137,485 vehicles registered nationwide with the Road Transport Administration Department in 2016—up from only 2,354,275 in 2011—83 percent were classified as motorcycles. Many of these are cheap models imported from China.

While this rapid uptake has opened new avenues for economic advancement, it has been at the cost not only of worsening road safety but also chronic traffic congestion in Yangon, which is pushing the creaky infrastructure of Myanmar’s commercial capital to breaking point.

Ko Kyaw Swar Wynn, a taxi driver and chauffeur based in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, told Mizzima that, during the 1990s and 2000s, even motorbikes were unaffordable for many ordinary folks; and only the wealthy drove cars.

U Htay Aung, a Yangon resident who’s worked as a professional driver since 1998, explained to Mizzima that most of those who rushed out to buy second-hand Toyota sedans and Mitsubishi vans over the last five years were first-time drivers.

This makes his job frequently terrifying, he said, in ways it never used to be: many new drivers lack not only experience but also a basic understanding of the rules of the road.

Improved infrastructure development in recent years has also had perverse side effects. Wider, less pot-holed roads in many parts of the country have permitted drivers to speed like never before. The concrete ‘expressway’ linking Yangon to the capital Naypyitaw to Mandalay has formed notoriety as a high-speed death trap.

Popularly dubbed the “Death Highway,” the 587-km expressway claimed about 400 lives in its first three years alone, according to the WHO. A lack of crucial safety features, such as consistent guardrails and reflective lane markers, has been appropriated some of the blame, although few highways in Myanmar are equipped with any hazard-protection measures.

According to Roy Ben Eliezer, founder of the Yangon-based Interdisciplinary Center for Road Safety, 95 percent of road accidents are attributable to human error, rather than improperly built infrastructure or poor vehicle maintenance.

At a road safety policy dialogue in Yangon in February, hosted by ActionAid Myanmar and Mizzima Media Group,members of the government alongside private sector and civil society representatives singled out a general lack of awareness—or disregard for—road safety norms as the key target for a more concerted government policy.

In a previous step aimed at improving standards, the process for acquiring driving licenses was tightened in 2015. The “brokers,” notorious for helping people cheat the system in exchange for a fee, have been substantially weeded out from the government-run test centres, according to recent test-takers who spoke to Mizzima on condition of anonymity.

Computerised theory tests, instituted to reduce cheating, have also resulted in higher failure rates. The practical component remains minimal, however, requiring little more than a performance of parallel parking. However, standards bred through improved testing are likely to founder without adequate enforcement on the roads.

Despite recent boosts to staffing and the resources available to the Traffic Police, particularly in Yangon—where officers can now be spotted with shiny imported motorcycles, and where a centralised traffic control system with camera-rigged traffic lights is nearing completion—the departmentis greatly overstretched.

Although low on personnel, the traffic police can now exercise greater clout thanks to the updated 2015 Motor Vehicle Law, which upped severely out-dated fines pegged at 1,000-1,500 kyat (US$0.75–$1.10) to 30,000 kyat ($22) for failure to wear a seatbelt, and to several million kyat, plus jail time, for serious offences.

At the February policy dialogue in Yangon, Major Thein Oo of the Yangon Region Traffic Police hailed the new law’s deterrent effect. A dramatic switch in favour of seat-belt wearing has been readily observable in Yangon, particularly among the city’s legions of taxi drivers, since the new penalties came into effect at the beginning of this year.

Another legislative aid in preventing road deaths is the 2014 Emergency Care and Treatment Law, which establishes the “duty” of bystanders to assist in the relocation of accident victims to a medical facility, and criminalises any obstruction.

The law can be used to combat two notorious phenomena accompanying road accidents in Myanmar: an ingrained reluctance among bystanders to assist, for fear of being held responsible; and the insistence of police to register the details of an incident before victims can be relocated. Under the new law, police could potentially be charged for this delay.

However, such laws have to contend with both deep-set habits and continued low awareness of road safety norms, and cannot alone halt Myanmar’s road death “epidemic.” A determined effort involving government, civil society, and the private sector could begin its reversal.

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