Some 130 major accidents and thousands of minor ones are reported every day in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, says the country’s Traffic Directorate. At this rate, the roads are as deadly as the decade-long civil war that ended in 2006 after killing almost 18,000 people.
Rajju Shakya, 19, was driving her scooter to university in the capital last year. “There was a turning point at the junction. I switched on my sidelight and waited. Something hit from behind and I can’t remember anything else,” she said. Shakya lost both her legs below the knee as a result.
“The road traffic accident rate is frightening… The number of vehicles is increasing… The roads are narrow, and we don’t have enough space to expand these roads,” said Ashim Bajracharya, a senior lecturer in the architecture and urban planning department at Tribhuvan University’s Institute of Engineering, located in the capital.
The Word Health Organization’s (WHO) most recent Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study reported road traffic accidents as one of the fastest growing “epidemics” in the Southeast Asian region.
Most of the world’s road fatalities occur in low and middle-income countries, which have less registered vehicles, according to WHO.
The growing number of vehicles in Kathmandu has far outstripped road capacity, resulting in congestion that was fatal at times, Bajracharya said.
“The accident rate is particularly high among teenagers, so we have decided to submit a proposal to change the legal age to drive two-wheeled vehicles from 16 to 18,” Ganesh Raj Rai, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of the Traffic Directorate, told IRIN. The directorate is working with the Higher Secondary Schools’ Association Nepal to reach teenage drivers.
A UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) report in 2011 estimated that road traffic accidents in Nepal had increased fourfold in the last decade, leading to 1,734 fatalities nationwide in 2009-10.
Almost half of the people who die in road accidents are pedestrians, cyclists, or people on motor scooters and motorbikes, and many studies indicate that this proportion can be higher in poorer countries.
Nepal has built about 7,000 kilometres of roads nationwide in the past decade, according to the World Bank, but this still leaves more than half the population without access to all-weather roads.
Although the Traffic Directorate is implementing an accelerated road-building campaign, there is little awareness or information about traffic rules and road safety, which is part of problem.
“A new six-lane [13km] highway has been built in between Kathmandu and Bhaktapur [where] a large number of accidents were reported in less than a year. The government does not make the public aware about its new plans and this is where the problem resides,” said Kichah Chitrakar, chief executive of a local private engineering company, Development E-fort Nepal.
The Traffic Directorate is planning to introduce road safety education in schools, and said it is making awareness campaigns a priority.