Improved Roads Exact A Price


Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
2009-1204 - IPS - RIGHTS-LAOS: Improved Roads Exact A Price - Part 3

Inter Press Service News Agency

Improved Roads Exact A Price - Part 3

Melody Kemp*

VIENTIANE, Dec 4 (IPS) - Lao women express their equality by being as mobile as men. The numbers astride motorbikes in particular, are the same as those of men. But there is a cost.
As the number of fatalities and injured rise, so do the number of women victims, and those who find themselves caring for injured relatives. According to the Asian Development Bank's (AsDB) Road Safety Action Plan (2005-2010), 80 percent of accidents involve a motorbike. The road is an unforgiving surface.

As I was writing this story, my Lao assistant heard that a second woman friend had been killed in a motorbike accident. The second in a fortnight.

Both were in their mid-twenties and supported their families. One a sex worker, the other an office worker. Both killed at night. The witching hour when the police are tucked up in bed.

Both were victims of careless and dangerous driving. One killed when another motorbike ran a red light, the other hit by a car.

Their deaths personalised an issue of growing concern in Laos.

A neighbour in Lao, since 1976, nodded, "A lot of drivers cannot deal with the power of big cars. Together with a tendency to get drunk quite often, you have a dangerous mix. And that includes women." Lao is anomalous in Asia; women drink almost as much alcohol as men, though not as often, which didn't matter when they walked home.

What about the police? "Well they are trying hard, but they don't have vehicles, are poorly paid and they go home at 6pm before the drunk and tired hit the roads." Indeed the number of fatal accidents rises steeply between 8 and 1l pm. Recently the police have been seen on the night beat.

Police figures indicate there were 556 fatal accidents in Laos in 2007. Although police reports include the sex of those involved, it is not tabulated. The numbers are creeping up each year, as are the costs. In 2004, road accidents were thought to cost the country 13 million dollars, estimated to rise to 153 million dollars in 2010.

But this represents only those reported to the police. NGO research indicates that sometimes accidents, particularly those on minor roads, do not involve police. Compensation and post accident arrangements are negotiated between respective families. The family of the sex worker managed to negotiate 50 million kip (around 6,000 U.S. dollars) for her death by directly negotiating with the family of the person who hit her.

'Made in Japan' was the 1960's metaphor for shoddy products. Now it's 'Made in China'. Women eager to get mobile can often only afford cheap Chinese brands; my housekeeper included. "My motorbike is broken" is her usual reason for being late. Her Chinese-made bike costs roughly 600 dollars versus a lower-end Suzuki for 1,480 dollars. The head and tail lights only work sporadically, the brakes an occasional luxury. Fortunately she is a dab hand with a spanner.

A survey in Laos earlier this year found that Chinese bikes were the least reliable and most unsafe. ANCAP (Australasian new car assessment program) and German car club simulations found Chinese cars to have an unacceptable squish factor.

The Chery brand, which makes small brightly coloured cheap cars (9,000-12,000 dollars), has been rated in Russia as "unsafe at any speed". Photos of the crash test dummies indicate partial amputation of the driver's legs by the collapsing steering shaft. Mostly driven by women, small cars like the Chery have 'cute appeal' and are affordable. Absence of product standards allows unsafe cars or bikes to be imported.

The 2005 Asian Development Bank report concedes that improved roads make things worse as users are tempted to speed. And roads are not designed for safety.

Vientiane’s major thoroughfare completed last year with Japanese aid money has few turning lanes so U-turning cars block the road. The long divider tempts users to head into oncoming traffic, particularly women on short commutes. There is no paving for pedestrians or a slow speed lane for bicycles mostly ridden by women and girls or hand driven carts of the type used by women vegetable sellers.

Souphaphone was flung from a tuk tuk (cheap, three wheeled public transport) hit by a pickup, and her legs crushed by another car that failed to stop. Her right leg was amputated, the left deformed. Unable to continue work as a waitress she became very depressed.

"She tried to kill herself," her mother told me at a physiotherapy clinic in Vientiane.

They both wept as they talked about the burdens on the family. The accident happened at night and no police attended. There was no compensation from the hit and run drivers. Few vehicles in Laos are insured. If they are, the payouts are minimal. Car drivers are usually regarded as being at fault so they don't stop. The burden fell on her mother, who went back to selling goods at the market.

"I know it's dangerous, but it gives me freedom. I pray that I have good luck and I wear my helmet," said a young woman pulling out into the traffic.

* This is the third part of a series on gender and disability in Laos ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Laos accepted the international treaty in August 1981.