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In Asia, Taking to the Road Means Taking Risks

Transportation: Anarchy rules the road in Far East, where motorists take chances and, at times, pay the ultimate price as they flaunt laws while zipping from Point A to Point B.


BANGKOK, Thailand — Motorcycle taxi driver Prithan Vamy steers within inches of a bus' huge wheels as he zips around the lumbering vehicle, cuts into another lane ahead of a startled pickup driver and makes it through the intersection as the light turns red.

Motorcycles and the three-wheeled taxis known as tuk-tuks are fast and cheap ways to get around on the traffic-clogged streets of Bangkok and other Asian cities. Prithan asks for just 20 baht--45 cents--when he drops off his quivering passenger at the curb.

Drivers must take risks to make money, says Prithan, 38. "A lot have accidents and get hurt, but not me," he boasts.

This cavalier attitude is common in a region that accounts for nearly half the world's road deaths every year.

From Bombay to Jakarta, traffic safety is ignored. Small children ride precariously on motorbikes along with live chickens and vegetables. Roads are dangerously shoddy. Passengers dangle from packed buses that belch choking black smoke.

In slums and rural areas, riders crowd onto open trucks that serve as buses. A few weeks ago, a truck carrying a wedding party of 100 collided head-on with another truck in southeastern India, killing at least 30 people, including the bride and groom. More than 60 people were hospitalized.

Although most of Asia has long lagged behind the industrialized world in motorized transport, the numbers of cars, trucks, buses and motorbikes on its roads have skyrocketed since the 1980s as part of the dramatic rise in living standards and economic growth. But transportation experts say driving skills and law enforcement trail far behind.

Of the nearly 900,000 people killed in road accidents worldwide in 1999, 44% were in Asia and less than 14% were in industrialized countries, according to research firm Global Road Safety Partnership.

"The scale of the problem is bad in Asia," David Silcock, head of the Geneva-based company, said in a telephone interview.

"You will mostly find that it's human factor" to blame, he said, citing careless driving and a lack of protective gear such as seat belts and helmets.

China has the world's highest overall road accident rate, despite a relatively low ratio of motor vehicles, the World Bank says. About 83,500 people were killed in more than 400,000 accidents in 1999, a 7% increase in deaths and a 19% increase in accidents over 1998.

Beijing drivers weave across lanes, pass on the inside and drive fender-to-fender at high speeds. On rural roads, bicyclists turn without looking to check for approaching cars. Driver's licenses can be bought illegally--skirting the need for a test--for about $250.

In graft-ridden Indonesia, traffic police are derided as being among its most corrupt officials. Licenses can be purchased for a small bribe.

In Vietnam, traffic fatalities rose to a record 10,548 last year. Two million new vehicles, most of them motorbikes, were registered in 2001, a 29% jump in a year, to give Vietnam more than 8 million motorbikes and 550,000 cars, trucks and buses.

Other countries with high fatality rates include India, where the Asian Development Bank says 80,000 people died in car wrecks in 1999--even though the country has only 10 million cars for its 1 billion people.

Until March, wearing seat belts was not compulsory in India's capital, New Delhi. Now drivers of rundown taxis throw fake seat belts over their shoulders to fool police.

In wealthier parts of Asia such as Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Japan, fatalities are declining. Education, tough laws, traffic safety campaigns and better roads have cut the risks despite a high ratio of cars to people.

Japan has nearly halved the number of auto accident deaths through tough law enforcement and road improvements since the 1970s.

Malaysia's deputy prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, recently proposed that drivers who cause fatal accidents never be allowed to drive again.

"To Malaysians, a car is a necessity, and if they know they will lose their licenses ... they will be more careful," he said.

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