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Tibet’s Fatal Traffic

Traffic on Tibet’s mainly unsealed roads has become increasingly dangerous in recent times, with the rate of fatal accidents markedly increasing. While in the past, the government-controlled media, eager to avoid negative reporting and in line with the Party tradition of declaring ‘xing shi da hao’ (‘the situation is good’), has generally remained silent on the subject, the increasing frequency of serious accidents has now apparently generated more media coverage. The reports follow a similar pattern of blaming the inexperience and carelessness of the drivers, generally Tibetans, for the loss of life, however, they fail to mention that the drivers’ alleged failures are often a direct result of the circumstances under which they have to work and over which they have no real influence, in particular the pressure put on them by unscrupulous employers. The following account is a summary of a comprehensive report on an accident involving foreign tourists that occurred on 22 April 2003 but reached TIN only recently. It illustrates the link between the desire for profits and road accidents, the appalling inadequacy of medical treatment injured individuals can expect, and how drivers are made scapegoats by the authorities, and receive varying punishments, including even the death penalty.

One recent example of reports on deadly road accidents in Tibet was published on 15 January 2004 by the official Chinese news agency Xinhua. According to the report, seven passengers were killed and one badly injured in Zayu County when a truck rolled over a 100 metre-high slope. Excessive speed and the fact that the driver did not possess a driving license were stated as the immediate causes of the accident. Only four days earlier, Xinhua had reported the death of 14 people under similar circumstances in the eastern Tibetan prefecture of Aba in Sichuan. The over-turning of a lorry in Shigatse prefecture was reported on 07 January and injured 19 people, two of whom were said to be in a critical state. Excessive speed and the inexperience of a learner driver were once again cited as the causes of the accident. According to the Xinhua report of 15 January, there were 1,317 registered road accidents in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) alone during the year 2003 which resulted in the loss of 621 lives and injured 1,161; a huge figure considering the relatively small number of vehicles per inhabitant, as well as the fact that large parts of Tibet are still inaccessible by motorable roads. The report also mentions economic losses of 12.66 million yuan [GB£840,730; US$1,529,540; EU€1,273,873] were incurred and that the accidents were caused “by careless operation, overloading and speeding”.

The accident of 23 April 2003 occurred on the way between Lhasa and Yamdrok Tso (Yamdrok Lake) and involved a minibus carrying nine passengers, including a Tibetan driver, Tibetan guide and seven tourists. Five out of seven tourists lost their lives, but the two Tibetans survived the accident with the driver sustaining a relatively minor hip injury. The group was touring Central Tibet over a number of days in order to visit some of the main tourist attractions. The original plan was that the group would travel in two jeeps, but instead it turned out that they had to take a minibus, which was an inappropriate vehicle for unsealed roads but was more lucrative for the travel agency. The driver was in possession of a recently issued driving license and consequently was inexperienced, especially in difficult driving conditions. The tourists felt uncomfortable with the way the minibus was driven but even after asking the guide a number of times to instruct the driver to go more slowly, he did not reduce speed.

At around 3pm, the bus suddenly left the road and fell approximately 100 metres down a slope. Two tourists, one German woman and one overseas Chinese woman, survived only because they were thrown out of the window as the bus fell down the slope. Shortly after the accident, a car belonging to the military and, coincidentally, a car with Italian doctors arrived at the scene of the accident. The two women were placed in the military vehicle, although the German was so badly injured that she was in need of immediate intensive care, and were sent back to Lhasa by the Tibetan guide. Before they left, the guide asked the Chinese woman who was not injured not to talk to the police. There are two different versions of what happened to him after that. According to one source, he escaped and has remained untraceable since. According to another, he was placed under house arrest until the cause of the accident could be established.

The treatment of the German woman in Lhasa was inadequate considering her situation and could have resulted in her death. She had a broken femur and a cerebral oedema (swelling of the brain). The Lhasa doctors´ initial plan was to operate on her as soon as possible but the date that was finally set was far too early considering the oedema and the impact that anaesthesia would have had on it. The travel agency that had organised the tour sent a Chinese-German translator 48 hours after she had been admitted to the hospital. The medical staff did not inform foreign doctors working in the hospital that there was a badly injured foreigner. Approximately 72 hours after the German woman’s admission, an Austrian doctor on holiday and a German expatriate who had heard about the accident contacted the woman’s father in Germany and warned him that it was unlikely that his daughter would survive an operation at the date set by the hospital. With the assistance of the German Embassy in Beijing, the father was able to persuade the medical staff to postpone the operation. The woman finally underwent surgery when it was no longer considered dangerous and was flown out of the country after some days spent recovering.

Back in Germany, the woman required further surgery, as the initial operation was not successful due to shortcomings in the standard of surgical work performed.

Meanwhile in Lhasa, the Tibetan driver, who had been in hospital for less than a week, was put into prison. He confessed that he fell asleep while driving, was held solely responsible for the accident and was consequently sentenced to death.

In order to maximise profit, it is usual for travel agencies in Lhasa to employ insufficiently trained drivers and to use inappropriate vehicles. This makes further, similar accidents inevitable. Very often, drivers do not get enough time to rest between trips. Since there are not enough drivers, they are required to take one tour after another without adequate rest periods in between. On the trips, they are constantly rushing because they are instructed to return the vehicles on time for the next excursion. Under the threat of harsh penalties, including the death sentence, drivers are made to shoulder the full responsibility for any accidents by the authorities that can thus demonstrate to the public, as well as to the higher authorities, their firm application of ‘law and order’.

However, apart from the question of commensurability of these measures, they appear inappropriate to solve the problem in its entirety, since they fail to address the problem at its source, the conditions under which drivers are compelled to work. Nor do the measures incriminate those responsible for these conditions, those who belong to the few winners of economic progress in Tibet.

For more information on Tibet, check out the Tibet Information Network.

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