Traffic jam: improving road safety in Laos

11 August 2010

Written by: Sarah Green

It’s not just mosquitoes and malnutrition, it’s the roads we need to keep an eye on – literally.

Exhaust fumes pollute the air. Youths weave motorcycles through traffic banked up for blocks. Nobody bothers to indicate. The myth of speed limits evades the motorists. The marked lines dividing lanes are purely aesthetic rather than regulatory. Peak hour seems to stretch round the clock.

Alas, the chaotic road networks of the developing world.

Upon arrival in a developing city, the crisis of the road systems marks a striking feature of active urbanisation. Across Southeast Asia, a region of rapid socio-economic development, roads are teeming with motorcycles and tuk-tuks and more recently luxury 4WDs and sedans, which dart unpredictably along simplistic roadways.

The casual attitude toward road safety across the region has resulted in a frightening upward trend that is costing lives and draining resources from these emerging economies.

Unfortunately, Laos is no exception.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) conducted research into the road related injuries and deaths, uncovering a gross underestimation by official statistics compared with actual figures.

For example, in 2008, 471 road related deaths and 6,231 injuries were officially reported to Lao authorities. But hospital reports and social surveys conducted by the ADB give estimates pitching the combined injury and death figures at around 18,900.

This gap illustrates the difficulties associated with understanding and addressing a crisis that is not being accurately represented.

Although disease and malnutrition continue to claim lives across Laos, the leading causes of death and injury worldwide are changing. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has predicted that by 2020, road accidents will be the third most common cause of premature death in the world.

With the UN formally pledging 2011-2020 to the ‘Decade of Action for Road Safety’, initiatives like the Global Road Safety Programme (GRSP) have made enormous inroads into dealing with road safety issues.

The programme takes a tailored approach through the Global Road Safety Initiative (GRSI), targeting low and middle income nations through regionalised plans for high risk areas.

At present, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Laos is a member, is the key focus region of the initiative.

As an outcome of economic development, motorised transport in Southeast Asia has become more prevalent. In Laos for example, the number of registered motor vehicles continues to rise with motorcycles representing 80 percent of the country’s total vehicle fleet.

However, motorisation has developed without effective road safety strategies and is supported by substandard road infrastructure. As a result the ASEAN region has experienced the greatest spike in road fatalities in recent years.

This has been coupled with the significant national economic costs associated with road accidents. According to the GRSP’s ASEAN Region Road Safety Strategy and Action Plan data, road accident related expenditure in Lao peaked at $47 million in 2008, accounting for 2.7 percent of the nation’s annual GDP.

The link between road accidents and drink driving is significant. In 2009, over 37 percent of reported accidents were alcohol related and the dangers are not specific to local people. The damaging effects of driving under the influence also extend to tourists and expats.

An expat living in Vientiane, who prefers to remain anonymous, shared her experience of drink driving amongst the expat community living in the city.

She explained that foreigners think they are invincible. They act carelessly, waiting for something bad to happen before recognising the dangers associated with drink driving. ‘We shouldn’t be waiting for these anomalies’, she said.

‘In the western world, drink driving is totally unacceptable. We’ve been drilled about the dangers time and time again and yet here these educated foreigners drop their guard and all sense of social responsibility, acting as though they are above the law’.

And it’s not just the youngsters she is referring to. ‘In Vientiane, often it’s the older NGO workers and embassy officials who have been living here for years, drunkenly jumping into their sponsored cars’, she explained.

‘Vientiane has changed. There are a lot more vehicles on the road and as a result there is a lot more traffic. Foreigners don’t recognise that they are more likely to do serious damage in their 4WDs than ever before. It is recklessness and I don’t know where it’s stemming from, but it’s not good’.

The pressing issues related to Laos’s road safety crisis are the lax laws and relaxed attitude towards drink driving that pervade the culture. Without internally addressing both of these issues, it is unclear how much change can be promoted through international initiatives alone.

International programmes have been successful in the ASEAN region. With the funding and resources of the GRSI, the ASEAN Regional Road Safety Programme has developed national road safety action plans.

The most successful programme, targeting helmet use, was implemented in Vietnam, under the leadership of GRSP Coordinator Lan Huong Nguyen.

‘The helmet programme [in Vietnam] has dramatically reduced fatalities over the last three years’, he said. ‘We hoped to set the benchmark for other ASEAN countries and I think we’ve succeeded’.

Helmets are compulsory in all low and middle income countries, but not adequately enforced. Minimal fines and clumsy policing have failed to change unsafe road practices. In Laos, the police force is plagued by chronic under-resourcing and inadequate training, making enforcement of any new and existing legislation difficult.

The funding and technical knowledge expended by the GRSP targets education, which is critical for the longevity and success of road safety initiatives.

The assistance of the Sesame Workshop, producers of global education brand Sesame Street, has been recruited in a bid to use their expertise in evidence-based education, to create and distribute printed and visual materials that will create positive behaviour changes in road safety among young children and their families.

By educating children, a desirable and sustainable flow on effect is generated where the knowledge base of future generations is expanded and enriched over time.

It is impossible to devise fool-proof strategies that will guarantee an immediate reversal in death and injury figures. Education and more rigid legal enforcement systems are strategies that have been working in certain regions and mark a sensible plan to tackle the road safety crisis.

While Laos is undergoing rapid economic and social development, governmental regulation and the education sector are struggling to keep pace. A real attempt to reduce the forecasted levels of road traffic accidents and fatalities worldwide means an increase in national, regional and international activities related to road safety programmes.

The practical efforts of the international community are crucial in addressing the road safety crisis in the country, but ultimately it is up to Laos to take responsibility for the safety of its road networks and the livelihoods of its local people, expats and tourists.

Laura Retsos is currently studying a Bachelor of Media at the University of Sydney. This piece was originally published in the Vientiane Times.