Nepal’s other pandemic: road fatalities

More people die on Nepal's highways every year than in all natural disasters combined

FISHING OUT: Armymen try to pull out the bus that fell into the Madi River in Tanahu in 2013. Photo: PAWAN PAUDEL

At 5AM on 12 December 2019, residents of Khadichaur of Sindhupalchok district woke up to a loud crash. A bus had careened off a hairpin bend and plunged 500m down the mountain, killing 17 and wounding 18 passengers.

They were pilgrims on the way back from the Kalinchok shrine. A little over a year later, the tragedy has become part of the deadly statistics of Nepal’s highway accidents in which an average of seven people die every day.

“There was a pile of bodies, some with their limbs severed. I had never before seen such a horrendous sight,” recalls Mithu Mijar. “All we could do was help lift the bodies and place them in ambulances.”

Tara Bahadur Karki is still traumatised by the sight, and cannot walk past the site without recalling that fateful day: “The entire slope was covered with bodies and there were more under the bus. After a while, we lost count, as we kept pulling them out of the wreckage.”

Most of the accidents are preventable, and the causes are mainly poor road condition and reckless driving. The pandemic of highway accidents kills as many Nepalis every year as all the natural disasters combined. In fact they are so common that most Nepalis are desensitised by the numbers. 

From July 2014-July 2019, there were a total of 54,000 road accidents in Nepal resulting in 12,000 deaths of people mostly in the age group 15-40 years. 

This number went down sharply during the Covid-19 lockdown. Highway fatalities declined by half to less than 700 in March-August 2020, compared to the same period the previous year. By the Dasain-Tihar festival in November 2020, with restrictions removed, the number of deaths on the roads again spiked to 242 after falling to 52 in May.

“In developing country like ours we have fewer accidents but more casualties because of our mass transport. But we often forget about those wounded, they are sentenced to a life of economic hardships and trauma beyond our imaginations,” says former Superintendent of Police Jagat Man Shrestha.

On average, 40 people are injured on roads across the country each day.

In 2019, there were nearly 13,000 highway and road accidents in which 2,736 people lost their lives and 10,731 were seriously injured. Those who survive often have a traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, requiring long-term or life-long rehabilitative care.

Journalist Gajendra Budathoki was on his way home one rainy night when the blinding headlight of an oncoming bus from the wrong side at Bhadrakali turn caused his motorcyle to skid off the road. A spinal cord injury has paralysed him from the waist down. 

“I would never go faster than 50km/hour and my friends used to poke fun at me for being slower than a bicycle but now I’m forced to leave the rest of my life bound on a wheelchair,” he laments.

According to the WHO Global Status on Road Safety 2018, only 8 in 100,000 people die of highway and road accidents in developed countries, but the number soars to 27.5 in low-income nations like Nepal.

A Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport study has found that 76% of highway accidents are caused by drivers who do not follow traffic rules, or are speeding.

“Tipper truck drivers get Rs1,000 per trip so they try to make as many roundtrips as possible. I have seen them make five per night, driving even as they doze off at the wheels. If they don’t kill people, who will?” asks the chief of Lalitpur Metropolitan Police Sitaram Hachhethu.

Traffic police have now deployed speed guns to check speeding at the accident-prone Satdobato-Gwarko road. They penalise up to 100 commuters a day, many of them in motorcycles that are going at 90km/hour in the road with a speed limit of 50km/hour.  

Road maintenance or lack thereof is another major cause of traffic accidents. Local governments need to wait for the budget to maintain road safety while the Department of Roads is unable to add crash barriers on highways.

“Our roads are narrow, bad, and frankly not the kind we should have built,” accepts Arjun Thapa, head of the Department. “Priority on road construction without proper infrastructure planning is to blame.”

Roads are synonymous with development in Nepal. Every election, politicians promise highways to boost their vote banks. There are excavators clawing away at the mountains all over the country.

Says road safety analyst Kamal Panday: “Well-constructed roads prevent accidents, but we have made ours ignoring technical and engineering aspects because new roads bring in votes, and maintenance doesn’t.”

All automobiles are subjected to mechanical inspection tests every six months, those that fail are not allowed on the streets. But testing centres across the country are not functional as vehicles are certified based on manual (visual) inspection alone.

The design of vehicles can also factor in crucial life and death situations. For example, tipper truck drivers have blind spots on the sides which prevent them from seeing motorcyclists. Moreover, the bumpers of these heavy load vehicles is 1.5m above the ground making them lethal in a collision. Many countries including China, Brazil and Japan have now added 360degree cameras for tipper drivers.

“Our tippers are not fit for highway and city traffic, their only purpose is to carry raw material from mines to construction site,” says Namraj Ghimire of the Department of Transport Management.

An important aspect when it comes to traumatic road traffic accidents is the transportation of the wounded to the hospitals without further aggravating their condition. “We have seen many cases of careless handling leading to unnecessary damage to the spine resulting into deaths,” says Raju Dhakal of the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre in Sangha.

The traffic police and the Department of Transport Management are responsible for implementing rules and regulations. The Department of Roads has to build safe infrastructure. But when asked, they all pass the blame to each other. 

Traffic police complain that they do not have enough human resources. The Department of Roads states that most roads in Nepal are now under the purview of local governments. The Transport Service Department simply does not bother about vehicular inspections.

It is therefore up to the public to make their voice heard, and make government agencies feel more responsible, says activist Anandaraj Joshi, who used to be a truck driver in Western Nepal. 

“Civil society, media and investigators must continue to pursue this issue, start a discourse to wake up the uncaring state and together eradicate this calamity from its roots,” Joshi says.

There is a consensus among experts that the implementation of road engineering suited to the geography of the place and mechanical knowledge among drivers is crucial to reducing road accidents. Similarly, traffic education goes a long way in preventing road fatalities and must start at homes and schools.

Says former SP Jagat Man Shrestha: “Traffic enforcement gives us a quick result but it will be temporary. To prevent as many road accidents as possible, we must revamp our education system and upgrade engineering.”

Anita Bhetwal