‘Death Highway’ At Center of Burma’s Worsening Traffic Safety

The car of well-known Burmese singer Soe Tay lies along the Rangoon-Naypyidaw-Mandalay highway on Sunday. Click on the box below to see the unconventional warning signs posted along Burma’s “death highway.” (Photo: The New Light of Myanmar)

In 2005, Burma’s junta ordered its military engineers to quickly build a new road that would connect Rangoon with its brand new capital Naypyidaw and with Mandalay, and in 2011 the 366-mile road was completed.

But few funds were invested in safety measures and engineers admit the project was a rush job. As Burma’s roads become busier and more dangerous, the new road has emerged as the country’s foremost “death highway” with at least 432 crashes resulting 216 deaths in the past four years.

In the past two weeks several serious crashes were reported on the Rangoon-Naypiydaw-Mandalay highway. On Sunday, well-known Burmese singer Soe Tay’s car punctured a tire, skid off the road and plunged 5 meter into a gully near Meikhtila Township. The singer sustained severe head injuries and is receiving treatment in Mandalay Hospital. His 22-year-old girlfriend Chaw Chaw died on the spot.

Highway Police Col Nay Win said the fatal accident was one of many tragedies that are taking place on the highway. “We have to deal with several accident cases every day,” he said. Between March 2009 and April 2013, there have been 432 accidents, resulting in 216 deaths and 678 injuries, according to data from the Highway Police.

The high number of crashes along the Rangoon-Naypyidaw-Mandalay highway is indicative of a nationwide worsening of Burma’s road safety record. As the country’s road network expands and the number of cars plying its roads increases, so have the number of traffic deaths and injuries.

In 2012, there were 9,339 traffic accidents leading to 15,720 injuries and 2,653 deaths, according to government figures supplied to the World Health Organization. The numbers represent an almost 100 percent increase in fatalities in Burma since 2005, when there were 1,331 traffic deaths nationwide.

The number of traffic accidents are expected to rise even faster in coming years after the government lifted car import restrictions in October 2011, leading to a surge in car sales in the country.

Currently, the number of average traffic deaths in Burma already stands at 15 per 100,000 peoples, compared to 38 deaths in Thailand. Yet, Thailand owns 16 times more cars than Burma, according to recent auto market research carried out by Deutsche Bank.

The Rangoon-Naypyidaw-Mandalay “death highway” is at the center of the growing tragedy, as the country’s most important road connection was poorly funded and quickly built, according to engineers involved in the project.

The former military regime prioritized rapid development of a new highway between Burma’s major cities after it began its secret construction of a new capital. Located in central Burma, between Rangoon and Mandalay, Naypyidaw was completed in 2005.

Using forced labor, military engineers pushed through its rapid construction. The Rangoon-Naypyidaw stretch was completed between October 2005 and March 2009, while the part between Naypyidaw to Mandalay was built between July 2008 and December 2011.

The project was plagued by accusations of corruption and a shortage of funds, and was built without any support from multilateral donors such as the Asian Development Bank, which funds high-quality road projects across the region.

Ministry of Construction engineers acknowledge that consequently, road construction left much to be desired — and road safety became a low priority.

Along the highway there a few warning signs, or light reflectors to indicate a bend in the road, while at many places there is no railing along the roadside. Although there are a number of unconventional warning signs that carry messages such as “Life Is A Journey, Complete It” and “Drive With Care, Make Accidents Rare.”

“There are weaknesses,” Kyi Zaw Myint, Chief Engineer at Public Works Enterprise acknowledged in an interview with The Irrawaddy. “The road’s construction was not perfected. Its completion was rushed due to an inadequate time frame.”

“This was done because of the immediate need to commute between Rangoon and Naypyidaw, after the previous government moved there,” said Kyi Zaw Myint, who oversaw the highway’s construction.

Engineers say, however, that this meant that the public has extra responsibility to drive safely on the below-standard highway, adding that accidents are usually due to drivers’ carelessness, or because they were speeding or drunk-driving.

Myo Myint, Chief Engineer at Road Maintenance and Upgrading Unit under the Public Works Enterprise, said the road was “incomplete” and that “many needs remain,” but he nonetheless placed any responsibility for traffic safety with the public.

“The accidents happened to those who have less knowledge about the road. When something happened, they could not control their speed,” he said. “The risk could be reduced if drivers follow safety-driving guidelines.”

Some 5,000 passenger busses and cars drive on the road daily, according the Ministry of Construction. Heavier trucks transporting goods are only allowed to travel on the old Rangoon-Mandalay highway.

According to some drivers who use the road regularly, tire punctures caused by the road’s concrete surface are a leading cause of accidents. “The concrete road causes flat-tires, especially on hotter days,” said Aung Myint Kyaw, a taxi driver.

The engineers said they are taking some provisional measures to improve road safety. “Now, we are working to find a way to make it a safe road with less cost,” said Myo Myint. “We are conducting a survey of the needs for repairs together with foreign specialists.”

Engineers said that government hopes attract international donor funding to upgrade the road and widen it to eight lanes in the coming years.

The US government announced during President Thein Sein’s trip to Washington in May that it would allocate some donor funding to improve the Rangoon-Naypyidaw-Mandalay highway.

14 Responses to ‘Death Highway’ At Center of Burma’s Worsening Traffic Safety

  1. Highway code needs updating. Full licence holders needed further training on motorway driving. Roads needed maintenance. Road signs and road markings needed more visible. Speed limits on Highway needed reconsideration. I wrote a butiful article on http://www.myanmartodaynews.com regarding today’s DVR ( Driver, Vehicle and Road ) and also further reading on it regarding Learning to drive etc. If you wish to read, please check on MTN Myanmartodaynews.

  2. government transport department should not issue driver licence easily.must issue only after stringent tests

    • Yes, Mick. It is true nothing but the truth. Please refer to ” Approved Driving Instructor Training” written by me ( Public View ) on http://www.myanmartodaynews. What we are missing is a proper training for learning to safe drive for life. People are driving dangerously without motorway driving experience plus no quality standard of road signs and road markings appropriately. Now blaming each other and no human rights addressed. see my articles one to four of London DSA’s procedures to become an approved driving instructor and the test standard http://www.myanmartodaynews.com.
      by: Public View

  3. The main cause of ALL the accidents can be attributed to the basic flaws in the road alignment design, wrong curvatures, poor pavement materials, wrong design and poor sub grade, poor road signage, wrong markings and paints, wrong slopes, wrong kerbs, wrong guard rails and so on and so forth.

    The entire road system does not comply with any international highway standard and fundamentally flawed. It is not possible to reinstate the pavements and to improve the sub grade now.

    Asphalt on the concrete is totally a wrong concept as reflective cracks and poor bonds with failed sub grade. Rubblization may be a temporary solution but is very costly and time consuming.



  4. We must implement short and long term measures to ease the situation rather than hoping
    an Elephant to drop from the sky right now.
    1. Motor and highway specialists ( such as TOP GEAR TV shows) should be shown on T . V as an educational and learning for drivers.
    2. Make compulsory for every driver to attend 3 or 6 or 12 monthly educational talks. If not do not renew their licenses.
    3. If the concrete pavement road is too rough, try to smoothen a bit by running a road roller with
    rough surfaces. During the maintenance period, one lane at the time should be closed and do not repair on rush hours and days. Safety signs are to be placed way way ahead before the repair.
    4. All cars must discard air filled tubes and use tubeless tires instead. This will cost a bit more but
    tires will not be punchured instantly on the road and unlikely that vehicle will skid badly. It is because, tubeless tires when punchured release air slowly not instantly. All tires should be filled with a correct air pressure and rotate them regularly to avoid too fast worn out. They should also be done with wheel alignment for a better control and to reduce tires wear.
    5. All safety road signs must be designated / manufactured / location marked / including international colour code by a trained specialist appointed by the road highway authorities, but not by any tom & jerry.
    6. Breakdown vehicles must be available at regular intervals with some equipment to assist motorists in need, ( battery, water, oil, belts, tires, air pumps, tools, etc ).
    7. Communication lines for SOs and helps shall be marked and provided at regular intervals.
    8. To provide resting places and toilet facilities/refreshments areas, etc for one at least in every 50 miles of the highways. This will create jobs and other opportunities.

    If we do the above at least with not much of a cost involve, which are in our hands now, then ask and pray for (this time is) a cow to drop from the sky.

  5. Nothing has been done rightly by this idiot government.

  6. I was there in NPT, using this road off & on for almost 6 months.. My view, as an X road engineer, is that reversed or incorrect superelevations , compounded by not using proper passing-site-distances . If these rectifications carried out, there will be less accident to happen.

  7. The highway is foudamentally wrong in design and construction. The drivers are not at fault.ONLY OFFICIALS WHO INVOLVED SHALL BE CONVICTED

  8. Seat belts simple free save your life

    Two words “Seat belts”. Half the people would live if they wore them. I have personally pulled 3 dead people from an accident where all would have lived if they had of worn them. This basic piece of saftety equipment is in the cars for free and lack of education means people lose their lives everyday and incur more injury than they should. Simple education would save many lives.

    The other problem is that puncture repair in Myanmar is done using temporary plugs, rope and glue.
    These will blow out at high speed. Why so many blowouts on this road? A tubeless tyre would not deflate that quickly with a simple puncture. More research needed on this, but I think you will find these rope plugs are blowing out.

    The other problem is people drive too fast on that road. Way over 100 kmh. This has consequences.

    I have driven this highway a lot. It is not that dangerous if driven at the correct speed and with seat belts worn and a good car.

    If you drive and dont wear a seatbelt you are asking for severe injury.

  9. Two words “seat belts”. Half these people would be alive if they wore them.
    I have personally pulled 3 dead people from a car accident all died because they were not wearing seat belts. They are fitted for free and for some reason people here dont want to wear them. So education on this and a law might help.

    Second the puncture repairs used in Myanmar using rope and glue are temporary fixes and I would not be surprised if they are being blown out at high speed on that road. Explains the number of blowouts.

    Third I drive on that highway regularly and it is not dangerous if you drive at the correct speed of 100 kmh. There are a lot of people driving way over that speed. The road is not that bad if you drive at the correct speed.

  10. highway patrol police, speedy camera, rest area, information centers needs to have,,,

  11. There are lots of things to be done I am afraid. The problem is everyone is master in our country. There is no pupil at all. They don’t have education either. Highway has to be high standard of quality road Highway. The wrong business plan was drawn. In my opinion prior to draw the business plan everyone involved has to discuss in proper manner and Home Ministry, Health Ministry, Head of Police Department, Risk Assessment Team, Hotel & Tourist Organisation etc. Make a collaboration and cooperation to draw a proper plan. Traffic Police Force needs to coordinate with this plan for security, safety and resuce matters. Health Ministry needs to get involved with this plan to arrange emergencies arise i.e Ambulance Servises to be made available in case of collition and accident. Risk Assessement team needs to organise for assessing Highway roads’ quality and measurement for safety. These are not happening. Would you imagine over 2000 death on road accident in 2012? We cannot go Democracy just like this rate of speed. Use the old Yangon-Mandalay road. Ask foreign road traffic engineers ( not china ) use British experts to reconstruct this Highway roads like in their country M4, M25, M3, M1 etc. Use exactly their international road signs and markings( not in Burmese way of road signs colourful Yellow/Black etc ). Otherwise this sort of Highway is under quality road and more deaths can be expected if we go like this. Of course, Driving education and lessons have to be introduced in schools, in community and with the help of workshops, presentations and road traffic regulations needed a review.

  12. I have never lived in a country where the vast majority of people do not wear their seat belts, and some cars here don ‘t even have seat belts !! Seat belt wearing should be strictly enforced, and another thing I notice is children under 7 years in the front seats, sometimes even sitting on the lap of the driver !!! How stupidly dangerous is this. It’s asking to die. they should of course be in child approved safety seat strapped in the back seat. I could go on and on, steering wheel on the wrong side of the vehicle, cracks in the windscreen, no minimum tread depth in tyres,, some tyres having the inner wire reinforcing showing !!!
    People failing to indicate when they change lanes, or before turning a corner. People making a U-turn in the middle of a road. It’s almost like they got their driving license from a lucky dip !!

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