Why Deadly Bus Accidents Are So Common in Developing Countries

4 minute read

At least 20 people died after a speeding bus plunged into a ravine in a mountainous region of southwest Pakistan on Wednesday. It’s the latest morbid headline—following similar incidents earlier this month, last month, and last year in Pakistan—highlighting the frequent fatalities associated with bus travel in developing countries—a pattern that experts attribute to factors like poor infrastructure and inadequate safety protocols.

Pakistan is among the most dangerous places in the world to take a bus—but its problem of frequent, deadly bus accidents is shared among developing countries from Asia to Africa to the Americas, where buses remain crucial modes of transport, particularly for rural residents, in the absence of widely accessible rail networks.

While buses are among the safest modes of travel in the U.S. and Europe, researchers have found the “opposite” is true in the developing world, where bus rides are notoriously deadly.

In explaining the prevalence of severe bus accidents in the developing world, some researchers argue that the biggest problem lies with bus drivers’ behavior. Back in 1999, a study in Karachi, Pakistan, attributed the disproportionate amount of bus accident fatalities—among road traffic accidents—to “risky behavior” by both bus commuters and drivers, such as jumping off moving buses or buses stopping in the middle of the road.

A more recent 2023 study of bus accidents in five developing countries— Nepal, Zimbabwe, Thailand, Tanzania, and India—identified bus driver error as the “overriding” factor for the accidents and recommended better training programs for drivers. Another study, published in 2022 and looking at accidents in Thailand, found that drivers who were drowsy or did not obey traffic rules were among the main factors accounting for serious bus accidents in the country, especially in its rural north.

Other researchers, meanwhile, point to poor infrastructure, including road construction and insufficient lighting, which hamper bus drivers’ navigation on the road. In the wake of the bus crash in northern Pakistan earlier this month, which also killed at least 20 people, officials attributed accidents in that region to heavy rain and muddy terrain, which made highways slippery.

Last December, 17 people died after a bus with malfunctioning brakes drove into a ravine in central Philippines, along a section of a road that locals dubbed the “killer curve.” A local official said then that “the engineering design of this road is very faulty.”

Inadequate vehicle maintenance and the lack of enforcement of safety protocol is another major cause of bus accidents, researchers have found. A study of major coach and bus accidents in China found that safety prevention measures were often not properly implemented—a result of lax government regulations and inadequate supervision within transport companies.

Earlier this month, 11 people in Indonesia, mostly high school students aboard a bus, died after their bus swerved out of its lane while making a turn and crashed into other vehicles. The bus driver, who survived the crash, was initially taken into custody and declared a suspect. Local authorities later blamed the accident on faulty brakes and noted that the bus’ safety permit had expired—which critics say suggests the accident was evitable.

“There are so many anomalies in the accident that one wonders if it could’ve been prevented,” a public transport advocate told the South China Morning Post, “had government agencies done their job diligently.”

To reduce deaths going forward, researchers have pointed to the need for public education about road safety and stricter government regulations and others have proposed measures including “improving road conditions in non-urban areas, promoting walking infrastructure, reminders of high-risk situations for drivers, safety notes when improving bus service quality, and recording bus-related crashes.”

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