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

By Nyein Nyein 17 July 2013

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.