More can be done to rein in road toll

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2006, 12:00am

Carnage on the roads - the scourge of developed societies - has exacted a terrible price for China's modernisation. Three years ago, the mainland accounted for 15 per cent of the world's road deaths with only 1.9 per cent of the total number of cars. The annual toll was more than 100,000 and rising.

Now, China has more than three times as many cars - an estimated 34 million at the end of last year. But far from the unthinkable scenario of three times as many road deaths, the toll is now falling at an annual rate of nearly 8 per cent and may come in at less than 90,000 this year.

The authorities are entitled to some of the credit through building better roads, curbing speeding, tightening driver responsibility for accidents and improving vehicle safety. More resources for a determined effort to slash the toll could cement the turnaround. This would offer a measurable social dividend compared with resources devoted to censoring the internet, for example.

Anyone who has experienced the mainland's enthusiasm for motoring has seen snapshots of the problem, ranging from speeding to reckless lane-changing, pedestrians dodging through streams of traffic, poor driver skills, lack of traffic management, undermanned police and the poor quality of roads in the country.

Officials estimate that drivers with less than three years' experience account for more than 70 per cent of all accidents. Driver training and licensing leaves a lot to be desired and will continue to do so until all licences are obtained by passing a driving test - and not by bribing officials.

Apart from the increasing experience of the huge number of new drivers, a further explanation for the turnaround in the toll may be found in another scourge of modernisation - the traffic jams gradually paralysing more big cities and slowing drivers down. This will not improve their sentiment towards government but it may be saving lives.

The mainland is not dealing with any problems that longer-established motor-car societies have not had to deal with. The main causes of accidents everywhere are speed, speed and speed, especially when associated with alcohol consumption. Petty bureaucrats the world over issue licences in return for kickbacks. Even in the US, authorities are still trying to convince more drivers to belt up, when any casualty surgeon could tell them seat belts reduce the severity of injuries.

Countries most successful in reining in their road tolls have spent many billions on better roads, traffic infrastructure and public transport, backed by road-safety education and mandatory loss of licence for drink-driving and repeated speeding offences.

China must buckle up to go down the same road. The economic costs of road accidents are bleeding the country of an estimated 1.5 per cent of its gross domestic product, not to mention the unacceptable human waste and suffering.