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Photo by Kendall Marianacci, Nepal Semester.

Driving in Nepal is an extreme sport

My first experience in a motorized vehicle in Nepal was the bus ride from the airport to Bhaktapur Guest House. That wasn’t too notable beyond seeing some of the buildings around us, since, due to the darkness of night, I wasn’t very aware of the other drivers on the road. This was not the case for my second driving experience in Nepal. I went on a little trip to Kathmandu from the Guest House with Nick to get myself some new stuff for the mini trek, and to drop off the belongings we were not taking with us on the trek. As we pulled out of the BGH, I quickly realized I was in for an adventure. The driver wove around pedestrians walking along the one-lane dirt road we drove down, eventually merging onto the main road. I wrongly assumed that once we got on the road, things would feel less dangerous.

Before continuing, it seems apropos to list the exact definition of an “extreme sport.” According to Dictionary.com, the definition is as follows: “noun. A sport that is physically hazardous,” or, “any athletic endeavor considered more dangerous than others.” The listed example states “extreme sports feature a combination of speed, height, danger, and spectacular stunts.” With this in mind, equating an average driving endeavor in Nepal to an extreme sport is highly appropriate to those of us unused to the driving laws of the Nepali people. There are clear rules of the road, but only the Nepali drivers know what they are. There is no speed-limit, no street lights (I’ve seen a total of 2 in my time here, both on the same road within a few miles of eachother) or stop signs, and no absolute divider between the two directions of travel. There’s a middle line on most roads, but even when there it’s often completely ignored.

Getting back to my second automotive rollercoaster: initially, the road had three lanes going one way, and three going another. After a few miles of driving, that same road was five lanes going one way, and one the other. At some points our driver crossed into the lane of oncoming traffic to get around traffic jams. Additionally, it seems possible that there’s an unspoken competition between drivers to see who can get closest to the other vehicles on the road without getting into a crash. It feels like an entire nation of overconfident teenagers with 5 minutes to make it to school. This is particularly concerning when riding in a massive bus full of people weaving between a group of motorcycles, who add an extra layer to the whole adventure. To give an idea of the rough ratio of vehicles on the road: I estimate an average of 25% are busses, vans, tempo’s, and other forms of public transportation, 15% are cars (primarily taxis), and 60% are motorcycles. My first day walking into Bhaktapur I watched more motorcycles drive past me than I had seen in the entire span of my life.

But is it really that dangerous? To us foreigners, this can be one of the most terrifying experiences of one’s lifetime. But that’s because we see only chaos where there should be an accident happening every few seconds. In the last five years, 8,982 people have lost their lives due to automobile accidents in the country of Nepal. The average DAILY death count in the US is 3,287. In 3 days, the US will accumulated a higher death count than the entire country of Nepal has in the last 5 years. Some may feel it’s unfair to use these numbers due to the US’s vastly larger population, so let’s use percentiles. The US loses an average of .004% of its population (1.3m of 325.7m) to accidents every year, while Nepal has lost roughly .0003% of it’s current population in the last 5 years (~9,000 of ~29m).

With this in mind, can we really say the Nepali way of the road is all that dangerous? Is it truly an extreme sport? What can we learn from the Nepali people’s driving methods to keep our roads safer? The lack of an absolute midline allows for more lanes to be freely used when traffic is heavy going one way, leading to far less jams. Some states in the US have begun making roads with lanes that switch which direction of travel they are used for at different times of day, which is a great start. Recent studies have shown that less accidents occur in unsigned intersections where a stop sign would typically be placed, and even less where a yield sign is used rather than a stop sign. Studies have also shown that the need of a marked speed-limit is largely insignificant. In experiments where roads were not marked with a speed-limit, accidents were less frequent, and drivers drove at a speed they felt was appropriate for where they were, which wasn’t far off from what was originally posted on the roads. Even in areas where the road was a straight shot, drivers kept below 50 mph due to the effect of having many trees or street lamps lining the sides of the road creating the optical illusion of going faster than one actually is. Road designers have been utilizing this for years, but the difference it makes seems to eliminate the need of a speed-limit. A 2001 study found that increasing highway speed-limits had no direct correlation with automotive death rates. The autobahn has one of the lowest death rates of the world’s interstate travel systems, with advisory limits stated, rather than enforced, and larger vehicles have specific limits given based on weight. And in all honesty, if someone wants to go fast, they’re gonna go fast. Regardless of the speed-limit. If we want to improve motorized vehicle safety, we need to start examining how our regulations may be adding to the danger.