The risk of travelling on Myanmar’s increasingly dangerous roads

Despite having one of the lowest ratios of vehicles to people, Myanmar has one of the highest road accident fatality rates in Southeast Asia.


MORE THAN 1,500 road accidents were reported in Myanmar during May that left 480 people dead and nearly 2,500 injured. If there was the same number of fatalities each month it would result in an annual death toll of 5,760. The actual figure would be higher because not all road accidents are reported.

In a country where the ratio of vehicles to the population is low, how can it be possible to have such a high casualty rate from road accidents? It’s an issue I would like to discuss this week.

According to figures from the Road Transport Administration Department, there were more than 5.7 million registered vehicles in Myanmar as of June 2016. Of that figure almost 4.8 million were motorbikes, 476,679 were private vehicles and 28,970 were passenger vehicles.

Compared to Thailand where there are more than 37 million registered vehicles, Myanmar’s number is very low and the rate of accidents should not be as high.

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One of the reasons for road accidents in Myanmar is because most vehicles are designed for driving on the other side of the road. About 90 percent of the cars on the country’s roads are second-hand imports from Japan that have right-hand drive. In Myanmar vehicles drive on the right and the use of right-hand drive vehicles creates a safety hazard.

The quality, design and condition of Myanmar’s roads are also a factor. Many roads are narrow, two-way thoroughfares and overtaking in a right-hand drive vehicle means that drivers cannot see if the road is clear when they begin the manoeuvre. This is a cause of road accidents every day.

Most road accident deaths involve motorbikes. The main reason is that most motorcyclists do not wear helmets, despite the law requiring them to do so. Motorcyclists are also required by law to wear helmets in neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, though breaches are common.

It is dangerous for motorcyclists not to wear helmets and they are especially at risk of suffering fatal head injuries in the event of an accident. There is also an attitude issue. During the former military regime, motorcyclists caught not wearing helmets were often able to pay a bribe to traffic police to avoid prosecution. This led to resentment and the idea that requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets was an abuse of authority and not for the sake of road safety.

The tollway linking Yangon and Mandalay via Nay Pyi Taw is notorious for accidents and has become known as the “highway of death”. Engineering defects are a major contributing factor to accidents on the tollway and the government is doing what it can to make it safer.

There is no camber on the corners and a lack of roadside barriers means that vehicles that run off the road during the rainy season often flipped when the left side tyres encounter higher friction from dirt or mud than right side tyres on smooth pavement. The absence of roadside barriers also means that wandering farm animals are a hazard.

The number of road accidents in Yangon is disturbing. Contributing factors include pedestrians crossing the roads at random and illegal parking on narrow roads that makes them more difficult to negotiate.

The huge influx of vehicles under import liberalisation since 2011 has made the city’s roads congested and has inevitably led to more accidents. It does not help that it has become increasingly dangerous to use right-hand drive vehicles on increasingly crowded roads.

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