ROADKILLNepalis are not dying on the country’s highways, they are being killed
Nearly 24,000 people died on Nepal’s roads in the last 10 years. In comparison, 17,000 people were killed in the 10 years of the Maoist armed conflict. Covid killed about 12,000 Nepalis.
Nepal’s highways are deadlier than war or pestilence.
Numbers are numbing. But although this epidemic of fatalities is now one of the biggest causes of death nationwide, it gets scant attention from governments, the public and media.
Nepalis have come to accept death on roads as a part of life. All three levels of government shirk from responsibility, calling them ‘accidents’. And road mortality has become so commonplace that the mainstream press buries the news.The relentless slaughter on our roads is the result of political disinterest, governance malfunction, and public apathy. Nepalis are not dying on roads, they are being killed.
“Road traffic accidents are getting more frequent and there is a direct correlation with the failure of national governance,” says transport expert Chandra B Shrestha. “Local and provincial governments have neither the capacity, nor clarity of their roles. Budgets are poured into building substandard roads.”
Shrestha analysed the tragedy this month on the Chandragiri road that killed a doctor, his parents and two children. Only his wife, a physician, survived because she got out of the car to put a rock behind the wheel of their hatchback that stalled on a steep section.
He says the incline was too steep, the rough surface did not allow it to gather enough speed for the gradient, and the thick dust did not provide adequate traction for the tyres.
Most of the euphemistically called ‘roads’ in Nepal are similar death traps. They are not wide enough, do not have the required radius on excessively steep curves, no attention is paid to drainage, and houses are allowed to be built without the required set-back.
“There is no design or planning to begin with, there is a total absence of any engineering,” says Shrestha. “This should be criminal. These are not accidents, but almost deliberate deaths.”
And like all crimes, the perpetrators can be tracked by following the money. Inevitably, it leads to corruption linked to infrastructure budgets to build roads regardless of priority or quality for kickbacks or votes. And when a bus falls off a road, there is no political will to investigate the root cause in the political economy and lack of accountability.
Apart from faulty highway engineering and absence of safety features, the other factors in road fatalities include driver negligence, carelessness, over-speeding, overloading, and lack of maintenance of vehicles.
Two-wheelers, which used to be confined to cities, have now added a new challenge to highway safety. Motorcycles are involved in 68% of road traffic accidents in Nepal.
“Young people over-speeding in their heavy 600cc bikes are a danger to themselves and others. Moreover, we have found a notable increase in youths driving under substance abuse,” says DIG of Police Bhim Prasad Dhakal, explaining that strict monitoring of drinking and driving has led to an increase in drug use.
Highway deaths make news, but injuries are a major cause of physical disability in Nepal. The numbers are shocking: just last year more than 30,000 people were injured in road crashes. Nearly 6,000 of them had severe spinal or brain trauma needing complicated surgery, rehabilitation and lifelong care.
As Nepal’s road network expands, and with inadequate attention to highway safety as well as lack of timely treatment of trauma victims and rehabilitation, it will be the poorest Nepalis who will pay the price. And they are the section of society already marginalised and excluded by governments, the public and the media.
“Road crashes perpetuate the vicious cycle of poverty,” says Raju Dhakal of the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre in Sanga. “From expensive medical bills to rehabilitation to lost years of productivity, it represents a huge loss for the nation. Our health system needs to be revamped, and investment is needed for preventive, curative, palliative and rehabilitative care.”
The main cause of highway deaths: corruption
The epidemic of fatalities and injuries on Nepal’s highways are no accident, they are a criminal offence
It is ironic that for something that is considered a vote bank, there is no accountability when it comes to the maintenance of roads to ensure their safety. All 77 districts in Nepal are now connected to the road network but bad roads are a given in this country.
Under federalism, true devolution of power is yet to be exercised but heavy earth-movers are clawing through the mountains in a misguided notion of ‘development’. A fatalistic society accepts road ‘accidents’ as a price to be paid.
This is one case where corruption kills, yet rarely is power held to account, or wrongdoing punished.
“Road maintenance is not sexy or attractive enough, there is no political or monetary incentive, and there is no budget allocated either for road maintenance,” says transport expert Chandra B Shrestha.
Shrestha was a district transport planning adviser in the 1990s, and says Nepal expanded its road network but left sustainability out of the equation. “Asset maintenance is not even an afterthought,” he says. “What this means is that our roads are non-functional and not cost-effective, among other things.”
Every 14 deaths per 100,000 are caused by road fatalities, which is now the third biggest cause of death in the 15-29 age group. Three times more men die on the roads than women.
Last year alone, there were nearly 2,500 fatalities on the country’s highways and streets. Yet, the 79 who died in two tragic aviation mishaps in 2023 got vastly more attention in the public sphere.
Every year in Nepal, highways take more lives than floods, landslides, lightning strikes and other disasters put together. An average of 7 people die every day on the roads, and 19 were killed in three separate bus and car crashes in a 24-hour period last week.
As per the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Nepal was committed to halving road traffic deaths and injuries by 2020 and providing safe, affordable, accessible, and sustainable transport systems by 2030. We missed the first target. The second is not likely to be met.
Twelve people lost their lives when an over-speeding bus plunged into the Rapti River in Dang in the evening of 12 January. The very next day, a jeep travelling to Dhorpatan in Baglung overturned and killed two. This was followed by the private car that fell 500m from the road on Chandragiri, killing five passengers including two children.
And this is not even the peak season for highway fatalities, which sees a spike during the Dasain-Tihar festival or during the monsoon. In the last 10 years, there have been a total of 137,395 highway and road crashes in Nepal. A majority of these took place in Kathmandu, and in the Tarai where straighter stretches of road tend to lead to overspeeding. Gandaki and Kosi Provinces are next because of their wider network of mountain roads.
Nepal’s topography and weather are contributory factors, making roads difficult to build and maintain. In addition to being substandard, switchbacks wrap around mountain or roads that follow narrow gorges, traverse treacherous cliffs. During the monsoon, entire sections of arterial highways such as Mugling-Narayanghat are in a permanent state of disrepair.
The fact that vehicles are regularly falling down mountains on the same section of highways over and over means lessons are never learnt, no one is accountable. We do not take corrective actions when there are cost-effective solutions readily available.
“Driver carelessness on poorly built and maintained roads is the biggest cause of accidents. So our licensing system must be improved to allow only the qualified people to drive, even then we have to differentiate between heavy and light vehicle licensing,” says DIG Bhim Prasad Dhakal.
He adds: “Equally important are regular tests of public vehicles, better signage, as well as monitoring and patrolling where even the traffic police have areas to improve on.”
Traffic police has introduced time card for long-distance drivers and vehicle owners need to employ two drivers on such routes. New roads like the Midhill Highway are better engineered, have improved signage and guardrails.
Still, because roads with poor safety features are being built all over Nepal, the country needs trauma centres along every stretch of highway and ambulances with emergency equipment pre-positioned at health posts. The government has mandated one trauma centre in each province, and even though more are required even that target has not been met.
“Management of crash sites is of utmost importance, but first responders are often untrained locals who add to the severity of the injuries or even cause the wounded to die during rescue due to mishandling,” says Raju Dhakal of the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre (SIRC) in Sanga.
Trained trauma teams are often too late to arrive, and most victims and their families cannot afford long-term rehabilitation.
A four-month pregnant 20-year-old woman sustained brain injury after a motorbike hit her on the Sindhuli Highway last year. She lost her baby, and her husband had to quit his job to look after her 24/7 after being trained at the Sanga centre.
Many patients that receive rehabilitation therapy at SIRC after highway mishaps are paralysed and require a caretaker round-the-clock. If the person is the sole support, their families become destitute as well. Many children drop out of school, and end up in the streets.
The public must refuse to accept Nepal’s poor road safety record. There should be rallies and sit-in’s outside government offices just like there are for other crimes to push the government to take this life-or-death issue more seriously.
Given that road accidents are the biggest killers of children in the 9-15 age group, traffic rules and discipline should be taught in school. Pillion riders should refuse to get on two-wheelers if there is no helmet available for them, cars and bikes should be restricted on pedestrian streets.
Some surveys have also found that using local vehicles reduces accidents. But more often than not, the older less conditioned buses and jeeps operate on rural roads.
The use of CCTVs on highways and major junctions as well as dashcams on public vehicles can help in post-accident investigation and deter reckless driving in the very first place.
“Most of all, it is the government that has the biggest responsibility here,” says Raju Dhakal of the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre in Sanga. “It must seriously revamp everything from licensing, making vehicle tests mandatory, stricter traffic patrolling and actually holding culprits accountable.”
He adds: “The fact that most of the cost for treatment and rehabilitation of road traffic accidents is borne out of pocket by patients’ families has left the government off the hook. The public should refuse to accept this anymore.”
Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.