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Carnage on the roads

In 2011 an overcrowded bus with faulty brakes carrying schoolchildren fell into a ravine near Kallar Kahar, Punjab, killing more than 40 students. The tragedy briefly focused our attention on road and vehicle safety, after which the issue was shoved to the back pages of newspapers. Two years on, we are no wiser as to what corrective actions have been instituted to prevent such accidents.

The Kallar Kahar episode showcases the flaws in our road safety policy thanks to the government’s neglect and the lack of organised voices on road safety. More than a million people die on the world’s roads every year, with another 20-50 million sustaining injuries. Young adults and children account for most road deaths. The cost to the economy ranges between 1.5pc of countries’ GDP to 4.5pc. And 90pc of the world’s road-related fatalities occur in the developing world which owns only half of the world’s vehicles.

This, however, seems to be changing globally and across much of the developing world the rising number of road deaths is leading to concerted action. The UN has declared this decade as that of action on reducing deaths as a result of road accidents. So far, more than 100 countries have pledged to be part of the 10-year action plan.

Pakistan is one of the signatories. Yet progress on framing a well-integrated plan to reduce fatalities on the roads has been unremarkable despite constant nudges from UN bodies, including the World Health Organisation. This glacial progress becomes starker when road deaths are reported to be on the increase due to a huge jump in the ownership of vehicles, which has risen from five million in 2001 to 11 million in 2012. This figure excludes motorcycles whose ownership has gone up in the absence of reliable and safe public transport systems in the country.

Increased ownership seems to have coincided with increased deaths on the roads in Pakistan. Like everything else, systematic data on the issue is not available. Figures pertaining to deaths on the roads range from as low as 5,000 annually to 20,000.

To some, even the high-end figure is conservative, with the extent of non-fatal injuries believed to be way higher than fatality figures. Most of these fatal and non-fatal injuries are visited upon pedestrians, with children forming a substantial bulk. Yet these shocking figures have failed to concentrate our mind on reducing the burden of death from road accidents.

One reason pointed out in a study by a traffic police officer found a fatalistic attitude to road deaths. Most of the people interviewed ascribed road deaths to fate rather than a failure of any road safety and transport policy.

This does not absolve the government of its responsibility, though. According to a traffic safety expert, there are five ways in which traffic accidents and accident-related deaths can be reduced. An important one is to put in place institutional structures to deal with the issue holistically. Argentina did this by setting up a National Road Safety Agency which has led to significant improvements. Colombia is also contemplating the idea.

Second, better road infrastructure and better regulations governing drivers can go a long way in reducing carnage on the roads. In particular, sidewalks are important. Third, the safety of vehicles should form an important part of this strategy. This should involve regular inspections of vehicles to determine their road-worthiness as well as monitoring car manufacturers to ensure that vehicles are made to safety-conscious design. Four, a stronger educational campaign and an awareness-raising programme about safe driving and other road safety issues can form an effective prevention strategy on top of complementing other preventive strategies.

Lastly, an effective post-accident medical management strategy needs to be developed. As a large number of accident-related fatalities occur in the first few minutes after the event, the importance of providing immediate first aid and medical aid is of critical importance. In some countries such as Uganda, the issuance of driving licences is attached to the condition that new drivers first undergo first aid training. This idea can be tested here as part of a larger strategy to reduce deaths on the roads.

Road safety has never been a priority policy area in Pakistan. Yet the growing number of deaths as a result of declining road infrastructure and the exponential increase in vehicles pose a significant policy challenge which directly impinges not only on the emotional health of families but also on the country’s health system.

More important, the loss of younger members of the population through accidents has implications for the productivity and economic growth of the country. This alone should prompt concerted action.

The writer is an Islamabad-based development consultant and policy analyst.


Arif Azad, "Carnage on the roads," Dawn. 2014-02-20.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Social needs , Social rights , Social policy , Safety policy , Economic growth , Public transport , Transport policy , Pakistan