Almost three-quarters of drivers in Vientiane routinely break speed limits and nearly a third of evening motorists have been drinking alcohol, new research on the country’s growing road crash problem shows.
Motorcycle helmet use is limited, while risk-taking behavior among drivers is prevalent, according to surveys conducted by the Department of Transport and the Traffic Police Department, with technical and financial support from the World Bank. The research, which is supplemented by testimonies from road accident survivors, comes amid rising accidents and fatalities. The work is expected to help implementation of the government’s Road Safety Action Plan, which has recently been drafted and is now being reviewed.
“Road safety is a major public health issue, just like the eradication of dengue or malaria,” said Alex Kremer, World Bank Country Manager for Lao PDR. “The hard data on driver behavior and accidents, unfortunately, confirm the tragic personal experiences of thousands of Lao people, and obviously it will take leadership, commitment, time, and sustained effort to make our roads safe.”
Over a thousand people are killed on the roads in Laos each year, with many more suffering physical injuries and trauma after crashes. The number and severity of crashes has been increasing: total annual crashes rose by 35% between 2010 and 2020, while the number of fatalities increased by 67%. Road accidents and deaths have continued to increase in recent months despite many provinces being under lockdown due to COVID-19, according to the Traffic Police Department.
The accounts of crash survivors collected by the Department of Transport and a World Bank team are testimony to the severe impact of accidents on personal health and family finances. Survivors express a desire for greater focus on road safety, and enforcement of traffic rules such as control of speeding, drunk-driving, and helmet use.
Roadside surveys found that 73% of vehicles at selected intersections in Vientiane Capital were traveling over the speed limit, with younger drivers most likely to be speeding. Approximately one in three drivers tested positive for alcohol, and most of these were more than double the legal alcohol driving limit. Over a six-hour survey period, almost 600 motorbike riders and 500 car drivers were over the alcohol limit. By comparison, only 1,564 drunk-driving offenses were registered by the traffic police nationwide in 2020.
The surveys further documented that only 64% of motorcycle riders were wearing helmets, with females more likely than men to be wearing one. Alarmingly, only 10% of child passengers wore helmets. The surveys also found a significant decline in helmet use over the course of each day, with fewer motorcyclists properly equipped in the evening. In addition, turning without indicating was common, as was running through red traffic lights, especially at night.
The research, carried out with funding support from UK Aid through the World Bank’s Global Road Safety Facility, forms part of the Bank’s commitment to helping Laos improve road safety. Other initiatives supported by the Bank are road safety campaigns for students and communities living along project roads, support for the police on road-safety law enforcement, capacity building on road safety audits, road safety infrastructure assessments, and development of an online database to record crashes nationwide.
Improving road safety is critical to the World Bank’s twin goals of eradicating extreme poverty and increasing shared prosperity. Globally, low- and middle-income countries suffer 90% of road crash deaths and up to 50 million injuries annually. These deaths and injuries frequently lead to economic hardship, and in many cases poverty. Crash deaths and injuries drain human capital and limit economic growth. In Laos, road crashes are the number one cause of death for 5-14-year-olds, the number two cause of death for 15-49-year-olds, and the number one cause of disability for the entire population.
Through the National Road Safety Strategy 2030, the Government of Lao PDR is expressing a commitment to address road safety issues, and its vision is to eliminate fatalities and serious injuries on the roads. A 2030 target of a 50% reduction in fatalities and serious injuries has been set.