Monday, July 24, 2017

Tragedy after tragedy on Myanmar roads

Road accidents in Myanmar have become so common that nowadays only the most brutal ones make headlines.

A recent accident near Yangon. Photo - Supplied by Yangon Region Traffic Police Force Office Number TwoA recent accident near Yangon. Photo - Supplied by Yangon Region Traffic Police Force Office Number Two

Over recent weeks, tragic car crashes caused by drunk driving and even buses falling off cliffs did not receive widespread coverage as they represent just another day in Myanmar.

Myanmar roads are the second most dangerous in ASEAN, behind only Thailand. This ranking has increased dramatically over the past decade.

According to figures issued by Nay Pyi Taw Traffic Police Head Office, nearly 5,000 people were killed and almost 27,000 people were injured on the roads last year.

Figures from January to February of this year show that 15 people were killed and 80 people were injured every day.

Experts stressed time and time again to Weekend that the majority of these accidents were avoidable. They said that most crashes were caused by “irresponsibility” and “disobedience”.

Ma Latt Latt knows this all too well.

“We cannot accept car crashes as unavoidable,” said Ma Latt Latt, who was in a bus crash near Kyithto where she lost her mother and brother. More than 40 people died in the crash.

“These people should not have died,” she said.

Evidence obtained after the crash showed that the bus driver was under the influence of alcohol and that the vehicle was overloaded.

“Bus line owners put too many products on their vehicles. They think about money and not about the lives of passengers,” Ma Latt Latt said.

But she said that – tragically – some people in Myanmar regard road accident deaths as “retribution”. Like some sort of karma.

“They forget the person that caused the crash. They blame the dead person,” she said, weeping.

Ma Latt Latt is still nervous whenever she goes on highways.

Traffic Police Force figures show that vehicle accidents are primarily caused by “reckless driving”, “disobeying traffic rules”, and “the carelessness of pedestrians”. Such vague categories make a thorough analysis difficult.

“As Myanmar people drive better cars, more people drive at a high speed, more people drive while drunk, more people drive recklessly. These kinds of things are an invitation for disaster,” head of general staff branch at Traffic Police Force major Win Myint told Weekend.

Police captain Maung Maung Mya from Yangon Region Traffic Police Force Office added that traffic police can only do so much and that “all parties who use roads” need to become far better acquainted with rules and regulations.

But U Pauk, a bus driver with almost 50 years of experience said that government officials should not always shirk responsibility. He said that highways need dramatic improvement.

“Many highway roads are not built properly,” U Pauk said. “Some are built without asphalt, so don’t provide traction. Highway roads should always be asphalt.”

And little if any support mechanisms are in place for those left behind after car accidents – such as family members or those who have sustained permanent injuries.

Ma Kyaw Suu Mon suffered injuries after a reckless driver caused a crash during Thingyan. Although she escaped death, she said her life has been forever altered.

“I used to be a journalist. My job involved a lot of activities among the public. I can’t do it anymore. I have to avoid crowded places now because of my injuries.”

“I had to undergo surgery twice on my leg due to the accident. Now I can’t move quickly. This is not my fault but I will be suffering throughout my life,” she said.

Additionally, there is a lack of first aid knowledge in Myanmar. This means that people are often afraid to help victims of car accidents, so many victims are not taken to hospital immediately.

And not all crashes happen near government hospitals, but only government hospitals provide treatment for road accident victims.

Secretary of the Myanmar Organisation for Road Safety U Aung Naing said there are several ways to help curb road accidents in Myanmar.

“There are three main ways – more driving education to the public; better law enforcement; and improved construction of road infrastructure. If we can do these three things we can prevent a lot of accidents,” he said.

There have been some small positive steps in this direction. Traffic police have been conducting education programs on road accident prevention in public areas and schools, in collaboration with civil society organisations.

The government has also announced that it will implement a traffic control centre in Yangon in order to improve the city’s traffic flow and ease the traffic congestion.

There are already many road safety slogans around the country. “Don’t drive faster than the speed limit” and “don’t drive drunk” they implore. Yet these signs have seemingly done little during the recent spike in road deaths.

And a Motor Vehicle Law was passed in 2015 which brought in stricter penalties around road accidents but there is criticism that it is not being properly enforced.

One traffic officer told Weekend that “those who violate the traffic rules and put lives in danger deserve long jail time. The current fines are nothing more than pocket money for rich people”.

For the time being, it looks like little will change. The number of road deaths is still on track to rise.

Ma Latt Latt concluded with a sombre message: “I’ll never be able to take a family picture again,” she said.

“No one should feel like this. No one should be injured or killed by reckless driving.”

Translation by Win Thaw Tar, Khine Thazin Han, Kyaw Soe Htet, Zar Zar Soe and Swe Zin Moe