Stiffer penalties for wayward motorists and more humane emergency care legislation run up against a basic lack of awareness of—or stubborn disregard for—road safety norms, according to participants at a policy dialogue in Yangon on February 6.
Government officials, parliamentarians, civil society representatives, and local and foreign experts who attended the discussion - hosted by ActionAid and Mizzima Media Group - stressed the need for tougher law enforcement but also for a coordinated information campaign that reaches all road users in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s roads kill almost twelve people a day on average, remarked Marc Fancy, executive director of the Prudence Foundation, which supported the event. He noted that road accidents are the cause of sixteen times more deaths than natural disasters.
With road-related fatalities at 20.3 per 100,000 people, Myanmar’s roads rank just behind Thailand as the second deadliest in Southeast Asia, a region that already accounts for a quarter of all roadside deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
While participants discussed poor quality roads, lax safety requirements on vehicles sold, and rudimentary traffic light systems in major cities including Yangon, Roy Ben Eliezer, founder and CEO of the Interdisciplinary Center for Road Safety, pointed out that 95 percent of road accidents were attributable to human error and negligence.
Alongside drivers, pedestrians—the victims in a large share of road accidents—also come in for some blame.Yangon Mayor Dr. Maung Maung Soe, who delivered the opening speech at the event, said city residents’ habit of reckless road crossing must be curbed.
Daw Aye Thu San, political editor at 7 Day Daily newspaper, bemoaned how few pedestrians made use of Yangon’s elevated walkways, choosing instead to risk their lives dashing across busy arteries like Strand Road.
However, Daw Khin Ma Ma Myo, executive director of the Myanmar Institute of Peace and Security Studies, noted that drivers respected few of the zebra crossings painted around Yangon—pedestrians frequently had no choice but to “dodge cars.”
Myanmar’s accident rate has leapt in tandem with a surge in vehicles on the road. The Myanmar Port Authority revealed in July last year that more than 670,000 cars had been shipped into the country since stringent import restrictions were relaxed in 2011.
Rising incomes and the perceived status attached to car ownership has also boosted car sales, condemning commuters in Yangon—Myanmar’s largest city—to routine traffic gridlock, which new flyovers and a reformed bus system has so far done little to tame.
In his address, the Yangon Mayor U Maung Maung Soe called for a holistic approach to road safety. He stressed the need for “strong law enforcement,” including a crack down on unregistered vehicles and unlicensed drivers, but said “law enforcement is not enough.”
It is also necessary to win the “hearts and minds,” and therefore the “cooperation,” of the people, the mayor said. In “changing the mindset” of the people regarding road safety, the mayor foresaw a key role for the media.
Although most suggestions were directed at future policy, there was some evidence that authorities are already taking such recommendations on board.
Major U Thein Oo of the Yangon Region Traffic Police described the multi-pronged efforts of his department. Officers had been visiting primary schools to educate children in the rudiments of road safety, he said, while related cartoons had been incorporated into standard-issue exercise books in schools.
Major U Thein Oo also cited the more effective deterrence provided by the 2015 Motor Vehicle Law, which dramatically upped fines set at risibly low rates of 1,000-1,500 kyats (US$0.75-1.10) for most offences. Fines stipulated in the new law range from 30,000 kyats ($22) to 5,000,000 ($3,675), alongside prison sentences of up to six months.
The launch last month of the Yangon Bus Service, which has striven to consolidate and rationalize a previously unruly network of private bus lines, was also touted. Dr Maung Aung, secretary of the Yangon Region Transport Authority, said that enhanced government supervision would inhibit dangerous driving, for instance by blacklisting the worst offending drivers.
Mortality on Myanmar’s roads is down to more than shoddy driving standards and shaky infrastructure, however. Dr. Maw Oo, associate professor of emergency medicine at Yangon General Hospital, told Mizzima that perhaps as many as 40 percent of road deaths in Myanmar could be avoided if victims received prompt medical care.
Two factors work to prevent effective emergency response. Firstly, there is no nationwide ambulance service capable of providing immediate care en route to a medical facility and reachable through a toll-free number—although Dr. Maw Oo mentioned the recent introduction of a pilot service, meeting these criteria, on the Yangon-Mandalay highway.
Secondly, there’s a deeply ingrained reluctance among bystanders to assist road accident victims, for fear of entanglement in a police investigation. This fear was previously grounded in uncertain legal definitions concerning liability, which opened bystanders to the risk of being held unfairly responsible.
However, 2014 saw the introduction of a new Emergency Care and Treatment law, which establishes the “duty”—but not the obligation—of bystanders to assist victims or contact the police, and stipulates up to a year in prison and a fine worth US$100 for those who “obstruct” a victim from reaching medical care.
The law also requires that both private and public hospitals admit emergency patients as a priority, and states that patients must be stable before being transferred between institutions. This provision was intended to counter the tendency of private hospitals to refuse to admit accident victims in the absence of a police report.
However, Dr. Maw Oo said that despite some improvement, mostly in urban areas, the reluctance of bystanders to assist victims persisted, in a context of continued distrust of the police. For instance, there is a common fear that those helping a victim to hospital will be blamed should any of the victim’s valuables go missing.
But, in all aspects of road safety, awareness is increasing—including in government, he said.