Bhutan has around 67,000 vehicles and in 2012 itself there were around 26,000 cases of traffic violations across the country with around 17,000 just in Thimphu. There were also 96 deaths in the last one year. These numbers have all been increasing at an alarming rate in the last few years.
The above figures tell us several things. One is that we are a nation of inexperienced and bad drivers. The other is that too many people are still driving under the influence of alcohol. It also shows that there are many car license holders whose driving skills don’t necessarily justify their driving licenses. The figures also show a welcome and unprecedented level of checking by the Traffic Police.
What is a matter of serious concern is the consequent number of dead and injured. In a country where even a large natural disaster does not claim more than a dozen lives the high number of traffic related deaths every year is tragic and unacceptable.
There are several causes of these traffic violations and accidents but some trends are emerging.
One cause is the rise of young, brash and at times ‘high’ drivers who often end up operating the biggest vehicles like for e.g. Tipper Trucks, Excavators and also now City Buses. The tipper trucks driven by these young drivers have become a particular nationwide traffic menace operating from construction sites and mines.
Another danger group is intoxicated drivers visible particularly on Friday and Saturday nights who at times treat even busy streets like Formula 1 racing tracks.
A third problem group are new drivers with limited experience who have just managed to get their driving licenses and lack the confidence or skill to drive and often end up in problems.
It is also not uncommon to see government vehicles being driven brashly by government or corporate drivers who know that even if the car does get into an accident, the money will be coming from the government.
Though small in number but making up for it in speed and the number of near accident situations they create are ‘meat vehicles’ who can be found making two trips a day from Phuntsholing to Thimphu.
Then there are group of ‘bad apple’ drivers who overspeed, constantly violate traffic rules, honk loudly at the slightest provocation and will keep repeating their mistakes unless stopped by the traffic police or a bigger car.
Rude and impatient taxi drivers that treat the roads like their personal driveways and other drivers as intruders is becoming common place.
Apart from people and their cars one major factor in accidents is the nature of the road and transport infrastructure.
In terms of sheer number of deaths and car accidents Thimphu’s overrated ‘Expressway’ is more unsafe to drive on than the landslide prone Sorchen and Jumja points on the Thimphu-Phuntsholing highway.
Thimphu’s Expressway which is no longer an Expressway is an example of planning and maintenance gone badly wrong. Concepts as simple as an over foot bridge or subway for pedestrians to cross the street are absent while green railings held together by rotting sticks have already caused many accidents.
Drivers still don’t know which lanes to stick too with some driving too fast. Taxis park randomly in the middle of the Expressway to pick up passengers and street lights are not functioning in many places. While all of this happens, the only stakeholder who is doing something about it is the Traffic Police as others like Thimphu Thromde, MoWHS and RSTA remain oblivious to what is a major transport problem.
Another example of infrastructure related accidents is the the broadening of the Thimphu-Paro highway. There was a dramatic increase in the number of car accidents on the wider road as drivers drove at speeds which are not feasible in our mountainous terrain.
Bhutan has far too many traffic accidents and deaths many of which have been seared painfully into the nation’s modern conscience. There are those who accept this as a price for development. However, this explanation is not acceptable as the twin measures of catching bad drivers and improving our road infrastructure can greatly reduce accidents in the country.
The whole vehicle licensing system should not be designed to allow in the least competent, but be made more stringent to allow only good drivers on the street. Lawmakers should look at the possibility of tougher traffic laws. The RBP’s strong vigilance should continue and the government should provide more budget for procurement of necessary equipment like speed guns.
Ordinary drivers should also not hesitate to report particularly bad driving along with their number plates.
As the number of vehicles increases in the future the government and relevant agencies should also get their act together to preserve the life and safety of Bhutanese citizens on the road.
“A society sufficiently sophisticated to produce the internal combustion engine has not had the sophistication to develop cheap and efficient public transport?”