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A study of traffic accidents in Southeast Asia has revealed some shocking statistics. The study, carried out by the Asia Development Bank (ADB) in November 2004, found huge differences between official reports of accidents and the estimated number of accidents. Road death estimates were as high as nine times the number reported, and in one case, injuries were estimated to be 183 times more than the official count. This is especially true of bus accidents in Asia. Rochelle Sobel, president of the United States-based Association for Safe International Road Travel, which provides reports on 150 countries to travellers and corporations, says, "In Asia, we can't keep up. Bus accidents happen all the time.  Governments really don't know how many of their people are dying in bus accidents every year."


In Europe and North America, bus companies have started to move towards private ownership and management. These companies are usually very large and heavily regulated. There is strong enforcement of driver training, shift hours and vehicle maintenance. Here in Asia, up to 90 per cent of bus companies are privately owned and operated. However, they are not subjected to the same tight controls. "Private bus companies and individual owners are often entirely motivated by profit. They try to increase their earnings by paying drivers according to the number of passengers they pick up," says David Maunder, an international specialist with the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) of the United Kingdom. "This encourages unsafe practices such as overloading, speeding, working long hours, ignoring red lights and dangerous overtaking of other vehicles." The driver is the single most deadly ingredient in this recipe for disaster. A TRL study found that driver error was the cause of up to 74 per cent of bus accidents. "Inadequate training is a major problem," says Maunder. "They begin as bus boys collecting fares and they learn how to drive by watching the drivers at work, picking up their bad habits along the way. Finally, they get to drive the buses themselves though they have not received proper training."


What about the condition of the buses they drive? According to Maunder, maintenance is irregular, and regulations regarding maintenance are not adequately enforced. "Poor quality tyres, missing rear lights and mirrors, and missing windscreen wipers are very common." Indah Suksmaningsih, the director of the Indonesian Consumer Organization (ICO), which monitors bus safety, says, vehicle inspections are "unreliable". He believes there are many "unsafe" buses on the road because it is easy to bribe or pay off vehicle inspectors.


“Many bus operators in Asia run their businesses with very little cash. Therefore, they do not have the money to budget for proper maintenance or vehicle replacement," says Alan Ross, road safety adviser for the ADB-ASEAN Road Safety Programme. "Buses are often kept going as long as possible until they break down." Bus travel is especially hazardous in mountain areas, where two-lane roads are often insufficient for the heavy volume of traffic. In addition, they lack guard rails and places where vehicles can stop in case of an emergency. A good example is the Indian state of Uttaranchal. As home to four of the most holy sites in the Hindu religion, it draws thousands of pilgrims from all over India annually. Each year, there are hundreds of accidents on the state's mountain roads leading to the holy sites. In 2002, the Indian Government Public Information Bureau reported 415 fatal accidents on these roads in one year alone. The number of fatalities has led the locals to call the routes taken by the pilgrims "the roads to heaven".


Asian and international safety experts feel that several measures can help control the situation. They argue that drivers should be taught technical, social and psychological skills to be safe and responsible professionals. Drivers should also take part in regular retraining courses. They also feel that there should be better control against dangerous driving and driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Besides that, owners of bus companies and bus drivers must maintain their vehicles at a much higher standard. Most importantly, road safety campaigns are needed to educate all road users because although reckless driving is a major problem, careless pedestrians and wandering animals also cause accidents when drivers try to avoid them.


"Bus companies and bus drivers have failed to provide adequately for passenger safety in Asia," charges ICO's Indah Suksmaningsih. "But the biggest failure is on the part of the governments in Asia, which have failed to take the steps necessary to ensure that bus passengers are treated as human beings who have a total right to safe public transportation."



Adapted from Reader's Digest, September, 2005