Burma's Highway of Death

Built at great expense over several years, the 320-kilometre Rangoon-Naypyidaw highway was meant to be Burma's first international-standard roadway: a concrete strip where you could finally put the pedal to the floor of your new Toyota Land Cruiser without having to dodge a trishaw, bullock cart or man-sized pothole.

Uncluttered, secluded and efficient, the road seemed to sum up all that was good about the country's purpose-built capital, at least in the eyes of its creators. A trip that previously took at least seven hours could now be completed in less than four and the traffic was minimal, estimated at just 5,000 vehicles a day.

However, since its opening in early 2009 the highway has been plagued by fatal accidents. Official figures show that to the end of 2010, 80 people had died and 278 were injured in 156 serious crashes but the actual number is likely to be higher.

The most high profile of its "victims" was the infant grandson of Rangoon Mayor (and elected Union Solidarity and Development Party representative) U Aung Thein Linn, who died in a single-car accident. The parents of one-year-old Sak Naing Lin – the mayor's son and daughter-in-law – were also seriously injured in the crash.

More recently, four people reportedly died on the highway over the Academy Awards weekend, including a Japanese citizen travelling in a car with civil servants.

In a country where rational answers often appear in short supply – leading observers to, for example, attribute the shifting of the capital in 2005 to astrology – it's reassuring to find a reasonable explanation for the relatively large number of fatal crashes.

First and foremost, it's the result of a failure to develop and enforce road safety standards. Car maintenance is an oxymoron here. Vehicles are repaired as they fall apart and replacing tires before they burst is seen as a luxury that, quite literally, few can afford. While traffic police regularly stop cars to check registration papers, vehicle roadworthiness is never an issue. The enforcement of many road laws in Myanmar – as in most developing countries – is more driven by traffic police trying to earn enough money to survive than protecting road users.

This was noted by the World Health Organization in a 2009 report on road safety that revealed Myanmar had the second-highest road mortality rate in the organisation's Southeast Asia Region, behind only Thailand. While drink driving and speeding are prohibited, "[e]xisting laws appear to be inadequately enforced" and this contributes significantly to the high number of deaths on Myanmar roads.

On the suburban streets of Rangoon the consequences of this are usually minimal – but on the wide open highway, it's a different story. This culture permeates right to the top – to the businessmen and civil servants who use the highway most frequently. Anecdotally, accidents follow a similar pattern to that which claimed the life of U Aung Thein Linn's grandson: a single, relatively late model vehicle with one or more burst tires.

The higher-than-normal pressure on the wheels comes from a combination of excessive speed and questionable road design. The paucity of traffic encourages drivers to travel at upwards of 150 kilometres an hour – often for the first time. While most cars on the highway have seat belts, they are rarely used. (Burmese law does not require drivers or passengers to wear seatbelts.)

A report in local media last year illustrates the attitude of many drivers. The relative of a family of four from Rangoon killed in an accident in late November was quoted as saying that when told to slow down on the highway, the father of the family regularly replied that he could complete the journey from Rangoon to Naypyidaw in just three and a half hours.

Sources in the engineering community say the concrete surface is rougher than bitumen and exacts a greater toll on tires. "Because the highway is made from concrete there's no camber, which makes cornering more difficult," said one engineer. Also, long straight stretches are followed by relatively sharp bends, surprising inexperienced drivers.

"The engineers who built the road" – from the Ministry of Construction's Public Works department and Directorate of Military Engineering – "were not very experienced at making highways," he adds. "The priority was completing the road as fast and as cheaply as possible."

Surprisingly, given that the government's failings have played a significant role in many of the deaths, the issue has been widely discussed in local private media. A recent article in the state-run New Light of Myanmar – titled "Man's fault or vehicle or road?" – conceded that "the expressway has seen many traffic accidents" but attributed these to vehicle malfunctions, poor-quality tires and drink or drowsy drivers.

While the government says it is taking steps to make the road safer for motorists, the situation won't change without proper enforcement of speed limits as well as car safety and maintenance standards – a prospect that, in the short-term at least, appears unlikely.