Highway hazards

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 January, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2002, 12:00am

Despite the rapid pace at which it has developed its infrastructure over the past two decades, China is still far from achieving its target of linking major parts of the country by a network of trunk roads.

Work on eight key inter-provincial highways only started last year, and it will be years before the country's 45,000 administrative villages are linked by small roads to the network.

Yet, as tens of thousands of kilometres of new roads are added every year, there are worrying signs that the ambitious road construction programme has not been matched by a corresponding investment in enhancing the driving culture.

And a mismatch between what may be regarded as the hardware and software of road transport, abetted by a spectacular growth in the number of vehicles, has led to an explosive rise in traffic accidents.

By one estimate, more than 260 people die on average in road accidents every day in China. Between January and September last year, 71,000 people died in 594,000 car accidents.

Several factors are behind the rising road toll. Although many formerly narrow and bumpy roads have been upgraded, not much appears to have changed for the men and women behind the steering wheel. They still slumber along in the fast lane when it suits them, and overtake the car ahead by making a quick dive into the slow lane. Double-white lines that are meant to bar overtaking are conveniently ignored. No wonder that head-on collisions remain common.

The completion of more super-highways has meant shorter travelling times, as vehicles can now run at much higher speed. But it has also bred another problem - driver fatigue, which particularly afflicts coach and truck drivers on long hauls.

These days, hardly a week passes without a major traffic accident hitting the headlines. As more mainland scenic spots are opened to tourism, it is feared that more travellers, including those from Hong Kong, will become victims in future accidents.

The mainland authorities are taking measures to address the problem, such as by establishing highway patrols to catch wayward drivers. But more clearly needs to be done. Introducing stricter rules on vehicle maintenance and imposing compulsory rest periods for long-haul drivers should go some way towards lowering the road toll.