Development of roads and road deaths


by Jagath C Savanadasa

While it should in reality lead to generating contra- developments it is an empirical truth, the world over. That is, wherever roads have been developed and their surfaces improved, there is a concurrent increase in road accidents and at times road deaths.

Before we get on to giving statistics and other relevant data let us at the outset state that the basis of this article is an insightful study (in fact the lead article) titled `reinventing the wheel' contained in the respected "Economist" in its issue covering the week, 25-31 January 2014.

According to this article, road accidents kill more than 1.3 million people a year. This exceeds the deaths caused by malaria and tuberculosis globally. It is not irrelevant to state that the cost of measures taken to prevent such diseases world-wide is far in excess of money spent to prevent accidents.

The more worrisome picture of road deaths is that they primarily occur in the middle income or poorer countries than in the rich. And this leads to a heavy economic toll on such nations as the ensu ing presentation will show. Many of the emerging nations are in the midst of infrastructure growth which includes road construction and development.

On the basis of the World Health Organization's (WHO) findings it appears that every 30 seconds a person dies in a road accident, somewhere in the world. And what sounds more alarming in the WHO's projection is that at the current rate, by the year 2030, two million people will die annually from road deaths, following accidents.

In a somewhat dramatic illustration that depicts the harrowing truth and the co-relationship between road development and accidents is the example of Nairobi the capital of Kenya as related by the "Economist".

In 2008 the European Union (E U) funded a highway in Nairobi at a cost of US$ 91 million. It is called the Northern Corridor, a vital trade route in East Africa.

However not even a small fraction of this expenditure was utilized on road safety. The road was expected to benefit everyone in Kenya in terms of improved connectivity, quicker transportation of people and also cargo. Such expectations were indeed realized. But the new road also brought with it unhappiness and at times outright grief.

Each month after the completion of the road a few people discharged from a nearby hospital were almost immediately readmitted to it after being run over whilst waiting to board a bus on the side of the road to take them home from the hospital Cars and lorries drove on this brand new road at a speed exceeding 130 KmPh (80mph). The road according to the "Economist" had made no provision to safeguard pedestrians, perhaps through installation of side fences nor provision for overtaking of vehicles.

The result, the local hospitals were full of casualties and this within a short distance of 5 Kilometers of the road.

This pattern, the article says is prevalent in all parts of Kenya.

Building roads is undoubtedly a necessary and productive exercise.

Quite apart from Kenya it is observed that in Bangladesh and Thailand there is an increased use of motorcycles for travel and in both these countries an increasing number of pedestrian deaths were also recorded. Motorcycles are a standards mode of travel for the middle classes in Asian nations and often it is a family vehicle. Especially in the mornings a child or two small children accompany the parents on their way to work. The children are however dropped on the way, at school. But motorcycles are clearly a means of travel fraught with considerable risk on busy roads.

According to the "Economist" in nations which are somewhat better off than the above mentioned, economically, like for example Turkey, Argentina and Russia it is passengers in cars and lorries who are victims of road accidents.

The first accident which caused a death on a road occurred in 1896 with the advent of four wheeler motor transport in the West. Accidental deaths gathered momentum over the next seven decades with the concurrent construction of more modern highways in the richer nations which facilitated speedier travel. Such accidents reached a peak in 1975. But subsequently they tapered down drastically in the wealthy nations following stringent controls and measures adopted to curb accidents.

Australian example

Way back in the early 1980's this writer led a trade delegation to Australia which was sponsored by the government of that country. The delegation visited four cities viz Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. One clearly visible fact even in those distant times was the quality of the roads, besides the road discipline observed by their users. I was able to gather some statistics in this regard which I tabled at a seminar on transport I was invited to address just two weeks after I returned to Colombo from this tour.

The audience was stunned to learn that in 1982 the total number of deaths on Australian roads was six. Over the next 32 years this figure has not changed very much. In such a vast country with such a wide network of roads it seemed inconceivable that the road casualties were so low. Australia is one of the nations where road users are very safe. Among the many safeguards on the Australian roads are dedicated lanes for cyclists. Vehicle movements are carefully monitored with CCTV cameras and nobody could help you if you are found breaking road rules . Punishment could be punitive and are a strong deterrent.

Compare the Australian road deaths of say two dozen an year with Sri Lanka's and you will realize the dangers road users face in this country due largely to wanton negligence and carelessness of drivers besides the grave problem of driving after alcohol consumption. Today six people die each day in Sri Lanka as a result of road accidents.

Last year's statistics present a grim and tragic picture of carnage on our roads - 2339 deaths. The total number of accidents in 2013 was 39,801. Last year also saw 716 fatal accidents of either motor cycle riders or those on the pillion of motor-cycles or both besides the pedestrian deaths caused by riders.

Traffic controls

Sweden according to the "Economist" has halved road deaths since 2000 and in the U.S. in a busy city like New York, the introduction of traffic and accident- control measures such as count-down lights and speed humps have played a vital role in combating this social problem of gravity.

In referring to road development in the poor countries aid donors and international development banks say that dangerous roads are better than no roads. This particularly applies to poor nations in Africa and South Asia on which road connectivity and improved modes of road transport are relatively new. And they take these nations forward as a result, economically.

Most victims of road accidents including those who die as a result are generally young men and boys the Economist reveals.

This not only leaves a trial of sorrow but also leads to families being destitute, since the youth form the most productive segment of the population.

On the other hand the cost of medical care in case of injury and the damage to vehicles deprive the developing countries as much as 10% of the G N P.

Safety measures

There is a rising public outcry in Sri Lanka to control accidents which besides their toll of human lives creates unexpected and grave problems to relations and families of the victims of accidents.

As a consequence there is a big outcry to enforce measures to prevent road accidents especially on roads which have been newly constructed and repaired or re-carpeted. Do these encourage speeding?. Yes they do since there is an inclination on the part of drivers on new roads to speed ignoring the dangers of excessively fast driving.

Does Sri Lanka need such lanes? At least within the main cities and its environs dedicated lanes for motorcycles and three-wheelers merit deep consideration. This is on account of the proven fact that the extent of indiscipline among motor cyclists and three-wheeler drivers is extremely high and they are a positive menace to our society.

The country also should examine its transport policies especially as regards the importation of vehicles. Let us take the examples of double cabs or half cabs. Do we need all these vehicles which occupy much space in our roads? Many such vehicles are driven by showy young men indeed a news bread of them who have completely false values. These vehicles with plenty of space at the back should be an exclusive means of commercial transport or cargo carriage. But as it is most such vehicles are not used for commercial transport but are used to take individuals on their daily journeys to work places.

Our transport policy also should entail the disposal of the aging fleets of buses. About 80% the public transport fleet of vehicles are too old and are also too big. Unfortunately in Sri Lanka except in the case of the new highways which undoubtedly are of international standard, most other roads are far too narrow for large old passenger buses.

New awareness

It is evident that the authorities are now increasingly alive to the need to introduce new safeguards to curb the rising level of accidents. But our resources are limited. If funding were available we could like in the advanced nations install count-down lights at critical junctions over the country, build separate lanes for smaller vehicles, like three-wheelers and motorcycles and safer pedestrian crossings if necessary with humps so as to prevent speeding at such crossings.

Above all a nation-wide drive through the extensive media network that Sri Lanka now has, could be used to generate awareness and the need for road discipline. Some of the measures it hardly needs emphasis should be backed by new laws rigorously enforced. I am sure all these changes will yield dramatic results within a single year and make life safe for road users.

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