"Hardly staying alive". Why doesn't the number of road accidents in Kyrgyzstan decrease, and what can we do about it?

November 7, 2023
дтп в кыргызстане

"Hardly staying alive". Why doesn't the number of road accidents in Kyrgyzstan decrease, and what can we do about it?

November 7, 2023
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On a regular Monday, January 30, 2023, Mirkul went for a morning run in the city center. However, when she crossing the road at one of the intersections on a pedestrian crosswalk, a driver exceeded the speed limit, ran a red light, and hit her. Three days later, she died from injuries.

Despite this, the culprit of the accident was released under house arrest. Only after the active coverage of the case on social media and in the media did the family manage to have the driver taken into custody. In the end, he was sentenced to 7 years in prison.

"They took my mom away from me. In our country, road accidents happen every day. How many shattered destinies! How much sorrow! Mothers, children, sisters, relatives suffer. My brother and I are left without a mother," writes Saule, a resident of Bishkek, about the loss of her mother.

Mirkul Aitkulova is one of many who have died as a result of road accidents in Kyrgyzstan in the last decade.

What is the scale of the problem, and how to stay alive on the roads? Peshcom journalists have researched statistical data and analyzed local and international experiences.

Daily road deaths

Road accidents in Kyrgyzstan happen constantly, averaging nearly 20 accidents per day. "Shocking footage," "violent collision," "horrible accident" – these are the headlines that media rush to write.

However, road incidents are not just frightening headlines or damaged vehicles but also shattered human lives: on average, every day, up to 28 people suffer injuries, and two people lose their lives.
Over the past 10 years, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) has registered more than 67,000 road accidents, in which nearly nine thousand people have died, and over a hundred thousand people have suffered various injuries.
In Kyrgyzstan, people are already accustomed to numerous road accidents — they say "kyrsyk" (accident) and sigh heavily.
At the same time, the number of deaths in road accidents is decreasing. If ten years ago, on average, there were over 15 deaths for every 100 accidents, now it is 10. However, it's important to understand that one-third of the fatalities are pedestrians.
One could say that the situation with road accidents is cyclical — the number of accidents or deaths fluctuates, sometimes increasing and sometimes decreasing. This is acknowledged by officials who note that any positive achievements in this matter are difficult to make sustainable.

The road accidents epicenter is in Bishkek

Bishkek is the most densely populated and car-filled city in Kyrgyzstan. It's not surprising that every third road accident happens here, with an average of about eight accidents occurring per day.
Over the past ten years, almost 900 people have died, and more than 30,000 cityzens have been injured in them. However, while the number of fatalities is decreasing, the number of injuries remains at the same level — around 3,000 people on average per year.
The main reason for the never-ending accidents, as stated by the Main Traffic Safety Department, is the "human factor."

"95% of traffic incidents occur due to the human factor. Drivers make mistakes or are unaware of traffic rules. Also, drivers lack driving culture," says Azamat Israilov, the head of Department.

Despite this, violations of traffic rules in Bishkek, as well as throughout the country, affect not only drivers but also pedestrians. On average, more than half of the city's road accidents involve collisions with pedestrians.

However, is it all about the human factor? No. Officials in Kyrgyzstan and the international community acknowledge that road traffic accidents are influenced by the road transport system or infrastructure.

To understand the correlation between road accidents in Bishkek and infrastructure, we researched data on road accidents in the city from 2020 to June 2021*.
* We obtained data from the website 102.kg, where the Patrol Service of the Police uploaded detailed information about road accidents. Since July 2021, the resource has stopped updating, and now it is completely unavailable. Due to this, there is no data for the full year of 2021.
Using the data, we compiled lists of the most dangerous intersections in the city for pedestrians and drivers, where there were approximately 30 accidents during this period.
Pedestrian-involved Road Accidents

Analyzing the intersections, we found that at 13 out of 31 intersections where there were the most pedestrian collisions, there were no traffic lights. However, pedestrian crosswalks ("zebras") were practically present everywhere.

For example, according to our analysis, there were no traffic lights at three intersections with the highest number of pedestrian collisions: at the intersection of Chui Avenue and Toktogul Satylganov Street, Ahunbaev and Tynystanov streets*, as well as Ahunbaev and April 7th, where a roundabout traffic is organized.
* At the Ahunbaev and Tynystanov streets intersection, a traffic light appeared in 2022.
We also found that accident rates may be correlated with the width of the streets. In all cases from the top 31 intersections dangerous for pedestrians, one of the streets had at least four to six lanes of traffic (combined in both directions).
Crossing wider streets by pedestrians requires a longer presence on the road, increasing the likelihood of being struck by cars. However, this is also influenced by the density of traffic and the speed limit.
The arrangement of pedestrian crossings without safety islands on wide streets is one of the issues in Bishkek. For instance, on the northern "zebra" of the intersection of Chui Avenue and Kurmanjan Datka street (which is in the top 31), pedestrians have to cover about 50 meters of road alongside eight lanes of traffic.
The intersection of Chui Avenue and Kurmanjan Datka street / Google Earth, 2GIS
According to the State Standard, such a crossing requires a safety island – a central area where pedestrians can safely wait for the traffic to clear and cross the road step by step. Despite repeated promises from city authorities, a safety island has not been implemented there.

Traffic Accidents

Analyzing the top 32 hazardous locations with the highest number of car accidents, we found that the majority of road accidents occur at intersections with the Southern Highway (Tokombaev and Masaliev streets).
Байтик Баатыра Токомбаева
The intersection of Baytik Baatyr and Tokombaev streets / Dmitry Shikhovtsev
So, in the first place is the intersection of Tokombaev and Baytik Baatyr streets. It is a crossing of an eight to nine-lane thoroughfare and a six-lane avenue, Baytik Baatyr. In total, at various intersections with the thoroughfare, there were 65 accidents in the past one and a half years, resulting in 3 fatalities and 115 injuries.
We also found six intersections that were both among the top dangerous in terms of the number of collisions with pedestrians and the top in terms of the number of car accidents.
The fact that these intersections turned out to be dangerous for both pedestrians and drivers indicates that accidents there occur not only due to the "human factor" but also because of deficiencies in urban infrastructure.

Warning or punishment

In Kyrgyzstan, there are two main approaches that the government employs to reduce the number of road accidents, as well as injuries and fatalities. Both are focused on the "human factor."

The first approach involves preventive measures. Every year, employees of the Main Traffic Safety Department prepare hundreds of informational materials, create social videos and give lectures. Traffic safety service personnel are also assigned to schools, where they work with children and oversee squads of "young traffic inspectors."

Knowledge about traffic rules can be gained in unexpected places, such as mosques during Friday prayers, where now officers from the police deliver information.

The second approach is the identification of violations and the subsequent punishment for them. Operations with code names like "Bakhous," "Pedestrian," "Behind the Wheel," and "Traffic Light" denote coded names for regular enforcement operations. During these operations, the Main Traffic Safety Department personnel can stop any participants in traffic to identify violators. For instance, during the "Bakhous" operation, they identify drunk drivers, while during the "Beacon" operation, they focus on those who do not yield to emergency vehicles.

However, the primary method of identifying violations is the "Safe City" project launched in 2019. Since then, dozens of cameras monitor drivers in Bishkek and intercity routes. Since October 2023, city buses, equipped with special cameras, also monitor violations by drivers in the capital.
Центр мониторинга безопасный город
"Safe City" Monitoring Center / Press service of the Ministry of Digital Development
Despite all these measures, drivers continue to violate traffic rules. In just the past three years, patrol officers have issued over 2.1 million violation protocols across Kyrgyzstan, amounting to more than one billion soms.
"Our accountability system is quite lenient. Today's fines, even after increases, are not a problem for many violators. Some fines seem to have increased, but discounts are immediately given," says Chynara Kasmambetova, the head of the "Road Safety" association.

Indeed, some violations, such as exceeding the speed limit by no more than 20 km/h, incorrect parking, not wearing a seatbelt, or disregarding traffic signs, can cost as little as 300 soms if the fine is paid within 30 days.
Exceeding the speed limit by up to 10 kilometers is not even considered a violation. However, speed limits are directly related to the likelihood of accidents and the severity of their consequences. The World Health Organization estimates that a 1% increase in speed leads to a 4% increase in the risk of a fatal road accident.
Violations that are important have low fines, meaning their significance is nullified. For instance, for not using seat belts, child car seats, or using phones. [...] A much stricter approach should be taken to this issue," adds Kasmambetova.

Do government pay attention to infrastructure?

In the development of the road transport infrastructure in Kyrgyzstan, city and state structures primarily create comfortable conditions for motorists.

For example, in Bishkek, streets are constantly being widened, new ones are being constructed, car bridges are built, and new interchanges are planned. However, all this only encourages people to switch to cars, thereby increasing the risk of accidents or being hit.

The city administration also wants to construct new underground and aboveground crossings, supposedly to protect pedestrians. However, neither underground nor aboveground crossings make the city safer; they only create a false sense of security. On roads with underpasses and overpasses, drivers do not expect to see people on the roadway. Pedestrians always choose the shortest and most convenient way to cross the road — meaning they are more likely to dart across the road than descend into a dark and dirty underpass. Such crossings are also unsuitable for people with limited mobility.
Pedestrian infrastructure, on the contrary, does not receive sufficient attention. For instance, safety islands are rarely found, pedestrian traffic lights are not installed everywhere, and pedestrian crossings and approaches to them are not well-lit.

Of course, there are positive changes. For example, new speed bumps, elevated pedestrian crossings, and rumble strips are appearing — uneven surfaces causing vehicle vibrations to increase driver attention to the road. In 2022, the police, in collaboration with the "Road Safety" association, launched a pilot project to reduce the speed to 30 km/h* near three schools in Bishkek.
* In general, the city has speed limits of 40 and 60 kilometers per hour. Given the permissible excess, drivers can accelerate to 49 and 69 km/h.
Speed limit is also an infrastructural solution, as it involves installing new signs, creating artificial obstacles, and sometimes narrowing roads or organizing traffic in a way that makes it physically impossible to accelerate.

"International practice shows that where speed limits are introduced, injuries decrease, and road traffic safety is enhanced. [...] We are currently developing an analytical document on 30 kilometers per hour for our officials, and based on that, we will strive for increased law enforcement," comments Chynara Kasmambetova, the head of the organization.

However, all these measures are still not sufficient for a drastic reduction in the number of accidents. Accidents not only claim lives but also cause significant economic damage — according to international estimates, they cost about 3% of the GDP.

Why do we need the "Vision Zero"?

In various cities around the world, combating road traffic accidents through infrastructural reforms began in the 1990s. It was during this time in Sweden that the Vision Zero program ("Zero Deaths") emerged — a program with zero tolerance for deaths on the roads. The highest value of the program is human life.

The program is aimed at creating a transportation environment where the goal is to prevent deaths or serious injuries on the roads. Within Vision Zero, speed limits are implemented on city streets, safe infrastructure is created, and the use of safe transportation is promoted.

For instance, one of the program's principles — "infrastructure separation of road users and control over them" — involves ensuring that pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles, and public transportation are taken into account and have the ability to move safely.

Another principle, such as "predictability and simplicity of the road environment," obliges the creation of an intuitively understandable road environment, even for a child.

Moreover, the key ethical postulate of Vision Zero is the acknowledgment that "people are prone to making mistakes." "Machines are not operated by perfect robots but ordinary people. Therefore, road infrastructure should take into account mistakes and adapt to humans, rather than expecting humans to adapt to it. The road should not take lives from people for their mistakes but should mitigate their consequences," explains Aziza Talaspayeva, a traffic organization specialist from Kazakhstan.

In Central Asia, urbanists from Kazakhstan were the first to promote this concept, and in 2019, the city administration of Almaty took it seriously. Since then, the city has implemented safety islands, sidewalk protrusions, separate bike lanes isolated from cars, and has also embarked on reducing speeds to 30-50 km/h instead of 40-60 km/h.

The Zero Vision strategy and the regulation of laws necessary for it are also considered in the development program of Almaty until 2025.
1. Example of a traffic island in Almaty / Peshcom
2. Narrowing of the roadway in Minsk / Minsknews
Meanwhile, the Vision Zero program or its adaptations have already proven effective in various cities. For instance, in Minsk, with the implementation of the "Kind Road" program, road fatalities decreased sixfold over ten years, reaching a historic minimum in 2022. In Sweden, where the program originated, road deaths have reduced by almost 75% since 2000.

The adoption of Vision Zero is also supported by the World Health Organization. "To universally implement Vision Zero, we need commitment and coordination from governments at all levels, starting from the top," the organization believes.

In 2023, Kyrgyzstan took a significant step towards reducing accidents. The country adopted its first National Road Safety Strategy until 2027. In this strategy, officials acknowledge the priority of the lives and health of Kyrgyz citizens, emphasizing that the most crucial measure to reduce the number of road accidents is the creation of quality and safe infrastructure. The full implementation of the principles of the program will be a crucial step toward embracing the Zero Vision principle on Kyrgyzstan's roads.
Authors: Alexey Juravlev, Altynai Nogoibaeva, Aigerim Ryskulbekova
Data editor: Savia Hasanona
Text editing: Savia Hasanona, Rada Valentina kyzy
Illustration generated using Midjourney
Authors: Alexey Juravlev, Altynai Nogoibaeva, Aigerim Ryskulbekova
Data editor: Savia Hasanona
Text editing: Savia Hasanona, Rada Valentina kyzy
Illustration generated using Midjourney
The article was created by fellows of the data journalism program of the Media-K Internews project in Kyrgyzstan, implemented with the support of USAID in the Kyrgyz Republic. The mentor of the program is Savia Hasanova. The opinions and conclusions in the material do not necessarily reflect the views of Internews and its partners.