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Myanmar’s deadly roads and how to fix them

On Tuesday, 11 February 2017

On a frigid evening in January, Hung Khen, a lawmaker in the Chin State parliament, was passing along the potholed roads of Matupi Township in southern Chin State when his motorbike slammed into a bike driven by three youths. Hung Khen died before dawn the following morning, on the way to a hospital in Mandalay. He was 38 years old.

On the following day, a car carrying Ayeyarwady Chief Minister Mahn Johnny from Pathein to Nay Pyi Taw collided with a passenger bus. Although he came off with only a hand injury, the chief minister was close to joining the ranks of the thousands killed on Myanmar’s roads each year, in what some have described as an “epidemic,” killing many more people than natural disasters, civil war and violent crime combined.

Achain of committees and “action plans” have stood seemingly powerless in the face of a rising death toll on the country’s roads—but some new and improved laws and an unprecedented degree of government attention, alongside new awareness-raising activity from civil society and private business, could begin to chip away at the grim numbers.

According to the World Health Organization, Myanmar has the second deadliest roads in Southeast Asia, after Thailand, with 20.3 fatalities per 100,000 and an average of 12 killed per day. This represents a drastic rise from 2.3 killed a day in 2003, in a context where most other public health indicators have improved dramatically.

Beyond the cost in human lives and to communities, there is an economic toll. At the first meeting of the National Council for Traffic and Road Safety—a body comprising Union-level ministers charged with formulating a high-level response—in Nay Pyi Taw in May 2015, then-Vice President U Nyan Tun, who chairs the council, put the loss at 3-4 percent of GDP.

Spurred by growing policy momentum among the ASEAN community—which first secured Asian Development Bank support for a regional Road Safety Program in 2002—an Action Plan launched in 2003 sought to have 70 percent of all Myanmar car drivers wearing seatbelts and 90 percent of motorcyclists wearing helmets within five years.

Reality has so far fallen miserably short of these objectives. The successor Myanmar National Safety Action Plan 2010-20 sought to cut roadside deaths by half, only to face significant yearly increases.

New laws, old habits

The surge in fatalities is partly attributable to a national car-buying spree since the relaxation of import rules in 2011, with some 670,000 cars arriving in Yangon’s docks over a five-year period, according to Myanmar Port Authority figures released last year.But creaky infrastructure, lax enforcement of traffic rules, and frequently shoddy driving standards against a backdrop of limited road safety education, all deserve blame.

New laws and decrees issued over the past two years are expected to slow the rise in road mortality to same extent. Previous barriers to effective enforcement included the pitifully low fines given to drivers flouting road rules, pegged at 1,000-1,500 by an antiquated law, which also didn’t require seatbelt-wearing or forbid mobile phones at the wheel.

In 2015, an updated Motor Vehicle Law hiked the fines to 30,000 kyats (US$22) for minor infractions, including failure to wear a seatbelt, and to several million kyats—along with jail terms—for serious offences, although it remains silent on mobile phone usage.

In a policy dialogue on road safety hosted by ActionAid and Mizzima Media Group in Yangon on February 6, Major U Thein Oo of the Yangon Region Traffic Police claimed the new law had been effective in deterring the worst excesses and in encouraging greater discipline. However, a significant staffing shortfall in Myanmar’s traffic police nationwide prevents comprehensive enforcement.

Another potential aid to saving lives, mentioned by Dr Maw Oo of the Yangon General Hospital at the same policy dialogue in Yangon, is the 2014 Emergency Care and Treatment Law.

This law seeks to eradicate a disturbing phenomenon of road accident scenes in Myanmar—whereby bystanders are reluctant to assist victims for fear of entanglement in a police investigation—by establishing the “duty,” although not the obligation, of bystanders to assist, and making the “obstruction” of a victim’s speedy passage to a hospital or clinic a criminal offense.

Dr. Maw Oo explained that, previously, meting out punishment to those considered at fault in road accidents was prioritized above saving the lives of crash victims. Under the new law, overzealous police officers preserving a “crime scene” could be subjected to the same punishments as anyone else found obstructing a medical evacuation.

However, old habits fostered over decades are unlikely to fade fast, alongside the risks attached to any dealings with a police force still considered deeply corrupt.

Unsuitable cars, unruly buses

The vehicles themselves present another challenge. The cars currently clogging the streets of Yangon and Mandalay are mostly second-hand Japanese models.

Myanmar drives on the right, but these cars have their steering wheels, unsuitably, placed on the right—a serious hazard in a country where rapid over-taking on narrow highways is a central part of the driving experience. But thishasn’t stopped those eager to purchase relatively cheap cars with a reputation for longevity.

To loud protests from Myanmar’s car dealers—who claim that newer Chinese and Korean-made models are less reliable—the Supervisory Committee for Motor Vehicle Imports decreed that, as of the beginning of this year, only cars built since 2015, with left-hand drive, could be imported into Myanmar.

Yangon’s city buses have been particularly notorious offenders, with competing private bus lines over stuffing their vehicles and racing each other, perversely incentivized by a commission system based on ticket sales.

The introduction last month of the Yangon Bus Service, which consolidated all bus lines under the Yangon Region Transport Authority (YRTA), is expected to deliver safety dividends. At the road safety policy dialogue on Monday, YRTA Secretary Dr. Maung Aung said that older, decrepit buses—previously comprising half the fleet—would be phased out after three months. He also said dangerous bus drivers would be blacklisted.

In addition, Myanmar’s roads are being upgraded, with international assistance. The Asian Development bank has been funding new, safer roads in the Ayeyarwady Delta and near the border with Thailand, and a section of the notorious “death highway” linking Yangon and Mandalay via the capital Nay Pyi Taw has been refashioned with funding and technical assistance from the United States Agency for International Development.

Better drivers, fewer brokers

Better roads, more suitable vehicles and more deterrent laws are unlikely to significantly dent Myanmar’s road accident epidemic in the absence of improved driving standards. According to the Myanmar-based Interdisciplinary Center for Road Safety, 95 percent of road accidents are down to human error. Myanmar’s roads need better drivers.

The driving test centres run by the Road Transport Administration Department—through which all must nominally pass before receiving a license—have seen some change in the last two years, starting with the introduction of computerized theory tests in early 2015.

Drivers contacted by Mizzima, who all wished to remain anonymous, described a system formerly beset with cheating and infested with “brokers,” who’d freely approach test-takers and deliver the answers to the theory test—as well as crucial insider tips for the practical and “psychological” tests—in exchange for a fee. Others claimed that the tests could be avoided completely if the right fee were paid to the right person.

Those who have taken the tests since 2015 in Yangon and Mandalay, however, found test centres seemingly emptied of brokers. Although some maintained that the desperate can still buy their way through, for a higher sum, a familiarity—through memorization—of basic road safety norms is now required for people to begin driving legally.

However, such theoretical knowledge is no substitute for practical experience behind the wheel. A complaint from one Yangon-based test-taker that passed through a government-run training centre is that she was only allowed three sessions in an actual car, lasting five minutes each. Parallel parking, the main component of the brief “practical” test, wasn’t even taught.

More education, greater will

To make up the shortfall in formal instruction—and for the additional benefit of pedestrians, who make up over a quarter of road accident victims in Myanmar, according to the World Health Organization—certain organizations and companies have been stepping in to provide training and to launch public promotion campaigns, working in cooperation with government.

Heineken, a contestant in Myanmar’s liberalized, rapidly expanding beer market, launched an extensive, youth-friendly multimedia campaign last year, with animated skits, celebrity endorsements and even a mobile app encouraging the public to fasten their seatbelts, not drink and drive, and put their phones away while driving.

“It is clear that the current government takes the issue of road safety very seriously,” said Zita Schellekens, director of corporate affairs for APB Alliance Brewery, part of the Heineken Company. Zita told Mizzima of the strong support they had received in their campaign from the Traffic Police and the Road Transport Administration Department.

Roy Ben Eliezer, founder and head of operations at the Interdisciplinary Center for Road Safety—which has trained police officers, school teachers and children on the fundamentals of road safety—told Mizzima that, although it is still “early days,” he had seen signs of road safety moving up the list of government priorities.

“I have met recently with some seniors from the central government and felt that there is a genuine solid state of mind to bring a change to the situation,” he said.

Given the strengthening political will, there is the potential to involve more members of Myanmar’s civil society, from entities like the Myanmar Red Cross—which has been carrying out vital response and first aid services at the community level, in the absence of an effective national ambulance service—to groups more independent of government. 

Recent steps taken by the government, and by private actors, over the last few years have been encouraging, but only deeper coordination across sectors and the willing participation of the public can make Myanmar’s roads truly safe.