Friday, February 21, 2014

‘None for the Road’

By MICHELLE BOROK

Every first time visitor to Mongolia is struck by the road conditions and driving norms here. Long term residents learn to adapt to the dangers of driving, being a passenger in a vehicle and navigating the streets as a pedestrian – all equally terrifying endeavors. The Atlantic shared data from a recent report by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. The study looked at traffic related mortality in 193 countries, and Mongolia ranked 10th for road crash fatalities accounting for 5.5 percent of all causes of death.

The study focused on deaths related to road crashes in comparison to other leading causes of death around the world. When looking at data provided by the World Health Organization, Mongolia was one of the top 25 countries studied where more people die on the roads than in hospital beds from cancer, heart disease or stroke. Mongolia ranked 12th looking solely at road crash fatality rates with 31 deaths per 100,000 in the population, the world average being 18.

More than 50 percent of Mongolia’s automobile accident fatalities include pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, an unsurprising fact. In 2008, Mongolian lawmakers considered the nearly 1,500 deaths and over 5,000 injuries between 2004 and 2008 as having reached disaster levels. Public education campaigns about the dangers of drunk driving, parent traffic monitors in school zones, and even volunteers painting streets to draw driver attention to pedestrian crossings are admirable citizen-led efforts, but lawmakers and city and province administrators have yet to take serious measures to bring fatality figures down.

In 2011, the United Nations launched its “decade for action” on road safety in response to rising fatalities around the world, especially in developing countries. Mongolia’s road accident deaths accounted for 6.8 percent of deaths that year.

Improving road safety isn’t just putting safer cars on the streets, but also revisiting standards for training and licensing of drivers, implementation of laws that call for safer driving (requiring seat belts for drivers and passengers and banning hand-held cellphone use by drivers), consistent enforcement of safe driving laws, improved access to public transportation, urban planning, monitoring of road conditions and emergency services. All of these issues pose challenges to Mongolia.

As Prime Minister N.Altankhuyag makes headway in building major roadways connecting the provinces to the capital, Mongolia will have even more kilometers of roadway to keep safe. Beyond the boundaries of Mongolia’s cities and more densely populated soums, street lighting, speed bumps and traffic policing are non-existent. The building of these new roads are part of the national development plan to minimize rural migration into the already overcrowded capital, and thereby minimizing Ulaanbaatar’s traffic congestion, but they also represent more opportunities for blood on the highway.

D. Batbaatar, Head of Road, Traffic Strategy Implementation Department at the Ministry of Roads and Transportation spoke with The UB Post last January about efforts to ban the continued import of vehicles with right-hand drive steering wheels. With Mongolian roads designed with left hand drivers in mind, the proposal isn’t an unreasonable one. At the time of the interview, D.Batbaatar said that the initiative was in its research phase, conducting interviews and feasibility surveys. One year later, importers continue to import both left and right hand drive vehicles and the recent ground breaking ceremony of a Mongolian Toyota retailer raises the question of which drive system will eventually be imported. For now, dangerous left hand vehicle passing on city and province roads will continue to be made by right hand side drivers leaning across passenger seats and vaulting into oncoming traffic.
Imported vehicles are not required to have front and rear seatbelts, but the national seat belt law requires seat belt use by front and rear seat vehicle occupants. Surprisingly, a law is also in place for child restraint systems in vehicles, but lacks enforcement. The law seems merely to be a suggestion.
Ten new buses were just added to Darkhan’s public transportation system, to the misfortune of unofficial “taxi” drivers, but the immediate benefit of fewer cars on the road and an affordable option for residents. The fare is 300 MNT for adults and 200 MNT for children. But meanwhile, in Ulaanbaatar, with considerably greater demand for public transportation, bus fares have risen and passengers are still left waiting for more buses and improved services. Investment in improved public transportation services is crucial to building a healthier, smarter, and safer Ulaanbaatar.

Cement blocks sporadically indicate bus lanes, but private microbuses and impatient commuters still dart in and out of them. Faded traffic lanes seem to simply be another suggestion for drivers. Even in the capital, off-road driving rules still seem to apply – forge your own path to get where you’re going and try not to get stuck. Better yet, try not to get anyone killed. Mongolia’s lawmakers, urban planners, and citizens have the bumpiest of rides ahead to make their roads safer.

Short URL: http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/?p=8095

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