A matter of life and deathA road safety audit of the Kalanki-Koteshwor Road should have been conducted before, not after, it was opened to traffic.
As per the World Health Organisation Status Report, the 'modelled number of road traffic deaths' in Nepal was 4,622 in 2016, and the figure is increasing every year. In the Kathmandu Valley, there were 658 accidents on the 10.5 km Kalanki-Koteshwor stretch of the Ring Road in the past 10 months, according to the Traffic Police. This resulted in 25 persons being killed and 454 being critically injured.
In Bajhang, nine people were killed when a jeep drove off the road and plunged 200 metres off the side of a mountain. A jeep carrying 15 persons fell into the Karnali River and all of them are feared dead. Such news stories appear almost every week in Nepal. This shows that the price paid for mobility in Nepal is too high, especially because proven road safety measures exist. Though there are several causes, such as driver behaviour, driver skill and vehicle conditions that result in road crashes, creating safe road infrastructure, especially in urban areas, is an important aspect of reducing the possibility of accidents.
Road safety audit
A road safety audit of the Kalanki-Koteshwor Road was conducted in February, six months after it opened following widespread criticism from the public and the media over a large number of mishaps. A road safety audit aims to answer the following questions: What elements of the road may present a safety concern, to what extent, to which road users, and under what circumstances? What opportunities exist to eliminate or mitigate the identified safety concerns?
Almost all road safety guidelines published by various countries state that road safety audits have to be conducted at various design stages because remedying the defects at the design stage is an economical and effective way of reducing road accidents. The Road Safety Audit Manual published by the Department of Roads in 1997 states that 'the earlier a project is audited the more scope there is to change things'. It says that an audit should be conducted during the feasibility study stage, draft design stage, the detailed design stage and pre-opening stage.
The Nepal Road Safety Action Plan (2013-20) prepared by the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport has also made road safety audits mandatory for all new constructions, major maintenance and rehabilitation projects involving national highways and feeder roads. Despite these standards and guidelines, the Kalanki-Koteshwor road corridor was audited six months after it was opened to traffic. Authorities have to answer why the road safety audit of this road section was not conducted at the design stage.
Next, learning a lesson from the experience of this section of the Ring Road, it is imperative to make road safety audits mandatory for all major road projects in Nepal from the policy level. Studies show that a road safety audit of road projects makes them almost five times more effective in reducing fatal and injury crashes. In our context, it is necessary to build up the capacity of the Department of Roads and other related agencies and to set up a proper institutional framework for road safety audits, so that they are conducted effectively at all road projects across the country.
Ignoring crossings and accessibility requirements of people residing on either side, the Kalanki-Koteshwor Road was designed as an expressway. This is the main design problem. Unlike perhaps 30-35 years ago, the Ring Road does not allow for access control and free flow which an expressway should have. Considering functional requirements to serve the communities settled on both sides of the road, this road was supposed to be designed as an urban arterial road. Basic requirements of urban roads like pedestrian and cyclist crossings; intersections considering right turns, U-turns and storage lanes; left in, left out intersections; footpaths and cycle lanes on either side were not designed and hence not built on this corridor.
Also, the carriageways of a road of this size and function have to be separated by a raised median. This is the international practice, too. A raised median provides refuge to pedestrians and cyclists while crossing the road. A raised median also prevents head-on collisions and provides protection from uncontrolled overtaking. But such geometrical elements to make roads safe were totally ignored for this section. These flaws in design and shortcomings could have been rectified if a road safety audit had been conducted during the design stage as specified by national and international guidelines. Even though it may cost a lot, it is highly recommended that these design elements are added to make this road safe for all kinds of users.
Install traffic lights
The Traffic Police have reportedly started monitoring the speed of vehicles on the Kalanki-Koteshwor Road. One point to be noted is that an urban arterial of this nature and function should have a design speed of 60 km per hour. A design speed of 60 km per hour is not a problem, the only thing is that the interaction between motorised vehicles and vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists has to be controlled, separated and protected.
Pedestrian mobility is very high on this road. People need to cross the road for their daily needs. The international practice to make pedestrian crossings safe is separating them either by time or space from motorised vehicles. A cost-effective solution to make the road safe for all users is to install functional smart traffic lights at all major intersections and between intersections working in a synchronised manner. The system costs less than overhead pedestrian bridges and similar other structures. This will also help to reduce traffic jams and air pollution and make the system efficient. This should be adopted for all urban roads in Kathmandu. Authorities should look for and act according to internationally proven engineering methods, measures and practices for traffic management and safety. Drastic action is needed from the government to put these measures and practices in place to save life and limb.
Lamsal is a senior highway engineer for WorleyParsons, Qatar.