China accounts for a fifth of road fatalities in the world. Why?

  • 15 people died and dozens more were hurt when a truck smashed into 31 vehicles at a northwest China toll booth recently
  • Mountain roads, rapid growth in motorway network, design flaw, high number of cars, new drivers, and presence of heavy vehicles make for a deadly mix
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2018, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2018, 11:50pm

China’s high traffic fatality rate is back in the spotlight after 15 people died and dozens more were hurt in a horrific pile-up on a motorway exit ramp in northwest China’s Lanzhou city.

A semi-trailer slammed into 31 vehicles at a toll booth on Sunday along a 17km (10 mile) downhill section of the Lanzhou-Lintao motorway on which more than 40 people lost their lives over the nine years between 2004 and 2013, according to local media reports.

The driver of the truck, identified as Li Feng, said his vehicle’s brakes failed as he was leaving the motorway, the state-owned Xinhua news agency reported. A police investigation into the accident is continuing.

The massive smash added to a road traffic death rate that keeps growing as China’s motorway network – now the world’s longest at 136,000km – expands.

According to a 2015 report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), China had over 104 traffic-related deaths for every 100,000 motor vehicles, compared with 33 in the Americas and 101 in Southeast Asia.

The rapid growth in the number of vehicles, drivers and the size of motorways in China has brought safety problems and design flaws, experts and officials say. Some of the big casualties on Chinese roads stem from the exploitation of loopholes in regulations, according to them.

China – which overtook the US as the world’s largest automotive market in 2009 – accounted for about 13 per cent of the 1.28 billion vehicles in use worldwide in 2015, according to the International Organisation of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers.

15 killed on Chinese motorway as truck ploughs into 31 vehicles

The country was responsible for 20 per cent of all traffic-related fatalities globally, according to the WHO report.

Last weekend’s fatalities – at a site long known to be hazardous – refocuses attention on motorway safety in China.

More than 200 vehicles have lost control on the part of the roadway that extends from a tunnel to the Lanzhou South toll gate in the decade since it opened in late 2004, the official Lanzhou Daily reported in 2013.

The tunnel is more than a kilometre higher than downtown Lanzhou, which sits in a basin.

In 2010, Zhao Yanlong, then the deputy head of Gansu province’s transport department, admitted to the media that the road and the toll gate had design flaws. However, he said, “this was the only location [where] the toll gate could be built”.

“There was no other better place because of the limitation [created by] Lanzhou’s geographic characteristics,” Zhao said.

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Despite reported improvements to the road, including added emergency lanes and deceleration strips, and boosting the rate of police warnings and check-ups, accidents continue to occur there.

Shao Chunfu, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University’s School of Traffic and Transportation, said authorities should consider banning large vehicles from the motorway, or ask them to change routes, because compared with smaller vehicles, brake failure is more likely for big trucks or buses because of repeating braking on such roads.

He said roads like the one where the accident happened are not rare in China, especially in mountain areas. While China’s eastern and central regions are mostly flat with a mature highway network, the mountainous inner areas – where the building of infrastructure is still ongoing, which also increases the presence of heavy vehicles on roadways – have limited suitable locations for roads, Shao said.

“In those areas, many roads are a combination of slope and bend, which can be very dangerous for big trucks,” he said.

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The professor said authorities “don’t attach enough importance to [being proactive] until after bloody lessons” [are learned].

For instance, he said, a ban on large vehicles was not imposed on a 5km “accident black spot” on northern Beijing’s Badaling Highway – a stretch with 13 bends nicknamed “death valley” – until a truck lost control and caused an accident there that killed 24 people.

Road design and a surging number of vehicles are both contributing to traffic casualties in China, Shao said.

“Road accidents are related to three factors – the driver, the road and the vehicle,” he said. “As China sees rapid growth in all those three aspects, safety issues have also occurred.”

Many drivers are not prepared for driving on China’s more challenging stretches of road and lack safety awareness, he said.

On average, the number of new drivers in China increased by nearly 25 million per year from 2012 to 2017, according to data from the Ministry of Transport.