IFRC

Surviving the Lao traffic

Published: 18 December 2003 0:00 CET

Teresita Usapdin in Vientiane

Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic) has the second highest death rate in Southeast Asia from road accidents. A country of more than five million people, Lao has a record of 19.4 deaths per 10,000 vehicles, mostly motorcycles, with the young often being the victims. It is a situation the Lao Red Cross feels it can no longer ignore.

Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is a clean, quiet place. Tourists call it “a village in the city”. Tall trees line the streets, there are no traffic jams and few pedestrians.

Watching the golden sunset in a park by the Mekong River would be a perfect way to end the day if it were not for the motorcycle riders practicing crazy stunts by the river bank at the risk of the pushchairs and children playing there. This ‘daredevil’ attitude is something some motorcyclists take onto the road which often results in accidents.

“Most of the motorcyclists, especially the young ones, are show-offs,” says Sakhone Xaynikan, a 49-year-old taxi driver. “They don’t care about their lives. They are thrill-seekers and they like to impress the women by driving fast.”

Sakhone drives an l945 Mercedes Benz which he bought 10 years ago for US$ 30 and converted into a taxi. He earns between three and five dollars a day, mostly from sightseeing trips with tourists.

“My car may be very old but since I’ve had it, it has never been in an accident,” Sakhone says. “And it is because I care for myself, my family, my passengers and of course, my vintage car.”

Tan is another safety conscious driver. This 19-year-old college student, who has been driving her motorcycle to and from school for three years, has never had an accident. “I get a thrill when I am on my motorcycle, especially when I feel the wind on my face. But I don’t get over-excited like most young people do,” says Tan. “Reckless driving won’t get me anywhere. I don’t want to die young.”

Motorcycles are the most common vehicles in Vientiane – in fact they represent about 70 per cent of the nearly 128,000 vehicles registered in the capital city. Cars are few and far between in comparison, with only 6,900 of them officially on the roads.

Handicap International says increasing economic prosperity is behind the rapid increase in the volume of traffic over the past ten years, especially in Vientiane. The number of motorcycles in particular, rose steeply due to the availability of Chinese copies of the popular Honda for only US$ 700 instead of US$ 1,500.

But the result has been a sharp increase in road accidents. A Vientiane police report from October 2003 showed there had been more than 2,700 road accidents in the city so far that year. Of the 3,883 victims of the accidents, 164 had been killed – way above the figure for the whole of 2002. Most of the dead were below 30 years of age.

Dr. Pathakone Banowong, head of the Vientiane city branch of the Lao Red Cross, blames the road accidents on poor knowledge or disrespect of traffic rules and regulations, drunk and reckless driving, a lack of driving skills and vehicle maintenance, insufficient traffic management and lack of a general safety awareness.

And it seems, there are certain times of the day when the roads are more dangerous than others – the evening rush hour period between from 1700 and 1900 and between 2200 and midnight “when the roads are free and people drive like hell,” says Dr. Pathakone.

No longer able to ignore this alarming trend, the Lao Red Cross ran a workshop on road safety in Vientiane last year with the support of the International Federation. The workshop focused on road safety rules and tips as well as basic first aid.

The 20 participants were college students who later taught what they had learned to their peers. During 2003, the Lao Red Cross has run its road safety programme among traffic police, representatives from the Ministry of Communication, Transportation and Construction (DCTC) and young people, in some cases together with Handicap International.

The two organizations are now closely working together in coordination with various government agencies for a more intensive and extensive programme on road safety. It would include seminars, workshops, providing information materials and organizing special events to highlight road safety.

Christa Weichert, Handicap International educational consultant in Lao, says her organization is focusing on the use of helmets for motorcycle drivers.

“Most drivers don’t realize the protective significance of using helmets,” she explains. “We may not be able to combat the rise in motorcycle use, but at least we can try to minimize the damage to human life in case of an accident - by simply wearing a helmet.”

As far as the Lao Red Cross is concerned, it has plans to work further on road safety among youth, police and public in general. These plans are largely dependent on the availability of sufficient resources. But the determination is there.

“We must ensure people’s homeward bound trips at the end of every day will be safe,” concludes Dr. Pathakone.




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