transport | Breaking point: Southeast Asia's road traffic nightmare
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Breaking point: Southeast Asia’s road traffic nightmare

Infrastructure and traffic policing have not kept pace with growing numbers of vehicles. The price can be counted in lives and crippling congestion

November 2, 2016 11:05 AM (UTC+8)

It’s rush hour in Ho Chi Minh City, the business capital of Vietnam. To a foreign eye, the scene is nothing but chaotic.

Motorbikes, cars and buses fill up every available piece of space, with motorcyclists riding on sidewalks meant for pedestrians.

Some happily wave to me as they drive past. Others look more gloomy.

I can’t blame them. Driving just a few kilometers can take over an hour, a local driver tells me. The air is filled with the sweet smell of deadly pollution.

In Vietnam, road infrastructure and traffic policing have not kept pace with the country’s growing economy and increasing number of vehicles – and the situation seems to be getting worse by the day.

In fact, the World Bank has warned that if the number of vehicles continues to increase with the roads system not being improved, traffic in the capital of Hanoi might come to a complete halt.

The price for this chaotic situation can also be counted in lives. Every year, thousands of people die in the traffic, known as Vietnam’s “hidden epidemic.” Many motorcyclists still don’t wear helmets and traffic education is low. Last year, more than 15,000 people died in traffic accidents, according to the Ministry of Health.

Lessons from neighboring countries don’t paint a better picture. In Indonesia, some 50,000 people die in traffic accidents every year, according to the World Health Organization. About two thirds of these fatalities were motorcyclists or bus commuters; only 1% were car drivers or passengers.

Dangerous ride: Many in Thailand don't wear helmets. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Dangerous ride: Many in Thailand don’t wear helmets. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, Thailand is ranked second in the world in terms of traffic fatalities, with 80 deaths every day.

Despite the warnings, sales of bikes and cars keep on swelling in Vietnam.

Some 9,000 new motorbikes join the roads each day, while sales of cars, vans and lorries soared 55% in volume last year, according to data from the Vietnam Automobile Manufacturers’ Association.

The government has tried to address road congestion by constructing elevated highways, ring roads and bridges. Meanwhile, Hanoi’s Department of Transport has unveiled a plan to restrict nonresident motorbikes from entering the capital and a new urban railway system is under way in Ho Chi Minh City.

Still, roads remain clogged. And — as far as I can tell from looking out over Ho Chi Minh City’s rush hour chaos — they are likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

Road safety in the Southeast Asia Region

Key facts from the World Health Organization’s Road Safety in the Southeast Asia Region 2015 report:

  • Road traffic injuries kill approximately 316,000 people each year in WHO’s Southeast Asia Region. These deaths account for 25% of the global total of road traffic deaths.
  • The Southeast Asia region has a road traffic death rate of 17.0 per 100,000 population, compared to the global rate of 17.4. However, there is considerable variation within the region, with rates ranging from 3.5 in the Maldives to 36.2 in Thailand.
  • Pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists (“vulnerable road users”) make up 50% of road traffic deaths in the region: in some countries this figure rises to over 80%. The safety needs of these groups must be addressed if a decline in the number of regional deaths is to be achieved.
  • Currently none of the 10 countries reported on in this Fact sheet have national policies to separate vulnerable road users from high-speed traffic.
  • Legislation is a key strategy to improving road user behavior, but most countries in the region could do much more to bring their laws on key risk factors — speed, drink–driving, helmets, seat belts and child restraints — into line with international best practice.
  • Enforcement of laws relating to the five key behavioral risk factors is weak across the region: strengthening enforcement is critical to realizing the potential gains associated with passing strong laws.
  • Vehicle standards are a critical part of road safety, but only two countries in the region currently apply any of the seven priority international vehicle safety standards, while no country applies all of these seven vehicle standards.
  • Improving infrastructure is an effective mechanism for reducing road traffic injuries. Six of the 10 participating countries require road safety audits for new roads, while four assess the safety of existing roads.
  • Improving post-crash care can help to reduce road traffic deaths and the severity of injuries. Currently only six countries in the region have an emergency access number, which can be important in activating an emergency response system.
  • The Southeast Asia Region comprises a large proportion of global road deaths. Achieving the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goal on road safety – halving the global number of road traffic deaths and injuries by 2020 – means that countries in this region need to accelerate the pace at which they implement effective road safety measures.

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