Burma’s Death Highway: ‘We Have to Take Preventive Measures’

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 18 August 2015

The road to Naypyidaw, often referred to as “the death highway,” has again come under scrutiny after news of recent deadly crashes on its rugged stretch of pavement. Recent rains, it seems, have made the infamous death trap even more dangerous. Last week, eight people died when a Shweli Oo passenger bus skidded off the asphalt. Dozens were injured and a much-loved aid worker was killed in another fatal pile-up as recently as Sunday. From just January to June of this year, the number of accidents between Rangoon and Nypyidaw reached 197, leaving 68 people dead.

In the wake of these tragedies, The Irrawaddy spoke with the Naypyidaw highway’s chief engineer, Kyi Zaw Myint, about what’s causing all these accidents, how to prevent them and what steps are being taken to reduce fatalities on the long, dark road to the capital.

We are told that USAID will be providing assistance to improve road safety on the Rangoon-Naypyiday-Mandalay Highway. What measures are being taking and how are they involved?

USAID assistance includes training in two areas: road safety and human resources development, or capacity building. Regarding capacity building, [USAID] provides training on designing safe roads and bridges through the Ministry of Construction. That training session was completed last year.

As for road safety, it provides in-service training at the 10 kilometer mark between mile posts No. 165 and 172, and the training is still going on there. [USAID] taught us how to mark lines on the road, they also designed the signposts, which we are installing with their guidance.

Last year President Thein Sein called for an upgrade of the highway because of frequent accidents. What measures is the Department of Engineering taking to improve road conditions and prevent accidents on turns and brigdes?

There are two things we need to carry out on this highway: construction and maintenance. Maintenance includes prevention measures, before and after accidents. We put up guards and truss at bridges and we pave the concrete road with asphalt. We prioritize the most dangerous parts of the road for upgrade, and work with the budget available. We are also widening the two-lane bridges and turns into four-lanes. The government has budgetary constraints for upgrading the Rangoon-Mandalay highway, so we therefore have invited private investment and some companies have shown interest. We will put out a tender next year in line with international standards, and for that we will hire a consultant for international bidding. It will require a lot of investment because we plan to bring the highway up to international standards, therefore we will need to invite private investors.

For the second phase, we have invited foreign companies with technical expertise to build the highway up to standards. Right now we are planning to hire a consultant to choose from those that have submitted letters of interest to us.

Domestic and international firms have been invited to bid competitively in this process. When will the developers be selected and upgrading begin?

Yes. The bidder must be technically and financially strong. We won’t select them, the consulting firm will. Now we are receiving the letters of interest and then we will hire a consultant. We are still in discussions with our international partners and we will hire the consulting firm recommended by them. Most of the consultancy firms are joint ventures based in Asia. We don’t know yet, we will make this public later.

What is the primary reason for the frequency of accidents on this road?

There are a number of reasons. Basically, road accidents are caused by unsafe conditions and unsafe behavior. Unsafe conditions concern engineers. From the point of view of an engineer, we are responsible for that. But 80 percent of road accidents in this country are caused by unsafe behavior. Not only in Burma and not only on highways, there are many other places where the majority of accidents are caused by unsafe behavior. Even if we make the roads 100 percent safe, there will still be accidents. Road accidents will continue unless behavior is changed.

People need to be better educated about safe behavior?

Comparing the rate of road accidents, the rate on the highway is higher than it is in Yangon [Rangoon] and Mandalay, and there are lots of casualties. I am not putting the blame on drivers; no matter how much we educate them, people drive differently on the highway than they do in other places. There’s a domino theory to safety. In assuring safety, we can’t just focus on the highway, we need to consider the entire safety program.

Which sections of the road are the most dangerous, for example, between Rangoon and Naypyidaw or Mandalay and Naypyidaw?

Traffic is heavier between Rangoon and Naypyidaw, and therefore there are more accidents. There are accidents on the Naypyidaw-Mandalay section as well, but the number is low.

Can you tell us about the hospital being built along the road to cater to road accidents?

We will equip a small hospital at mile post 83 in Myochaung [village] as well as Theegon Hospital near Meiktila for emergency care. In terms of accident, we need to think about both before and after. We are preparing the hospitals to avoid unnecessary deaths. It would be best if road accidents didn’t happen, but they do. We have to take preventive measures.