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Death on the Highway

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

My April to July trip from Bangkok to London along the Silk Road this year gave me plenty of opportunity to muse about safety on the roads. There was no question that we went through some countries where the roads were horribly unsafe. There was general agreement that the driving in Iran was terrifying and the statistics backed up that feeling. Annual road deaths per million in Iran – 321. That’s 11 times as bad as the UK which at 29 million is about as good as it gets, Sweden just beats it at 28.

So why do people die on the roads? Crazy driving plays a big part, lousy vehicles another big part. So a country like India may not have many vehicles on a per capita basis and drivers may not cover a lot of distance, but when you do have an accident you’re much less likely to be protected by seat belts, air bags, crumple zones and other modern design features. So, as you’d expect modern, affluent countries kill far less people per mile, per car, per head of population, ie on any measure you care to take, than countries in the developing world. The real horror story on the roads is Thailand which gets through 362 people per million: all those motorcycles

◄ Don’t drink and drive, a warning in China.

▲ And don’t speed, another China warning. Countries do turn their accident statistics around. We’re all driving much safer cars these days, but just as important as the cars are the drivers and despite protests about the freedom of the road speed limits and drink driving enforcement have also played a huge part in reducing the road toll. Spain, which used to have a truly developing world accident rate is now only a smidge worse than the northern European pace setters at 37 per million. Incidentally Germany at 43 is pretty good, despite those speed-limit-free autobahns. South Korea, which was a truly scary place to drive when cars first started to flood country, is today like most other modern, affluent, industrialised nations. When a country has modern vehicles and still manages to have a non-modern world accident rate – like Saudi Arabia or the UAE – it’s usually down to lousy driving.

◄ A standard Chinese freeway warning – with a standard spelling error – warning you to use your seat belts. Clearly the Chinese are intent on bringing their accident rate down to modern levels.

There is, however, one modern, wealthy, industrialised nation where the accident rate is still horrifyingly high. Yep, the USA, as a recent New York Times story underlined. This is the worst place in the wealthy world for highway deaths and the reason is simple. Just as America leads the world in gun deaths – ‘guns kill people? Well who would believe that?’ – the US death rate is down to ignoring the lessons other countries have learnt.

Speed cameras? That would be an infringement on American privacy. Drink driving? Isn’t it your right to drink before you hit the road? So the random breath tests which are part of life in Australia (they ramp up right about now, just before Christmas) don’t happen in the US and when limits are enforced they’re weaker than almost anywhere else. The standard US limit is 0.08 (0.08% blood alcohol level) when in most advanced countries the limit is 0.05 – if it isn’t 0.03 or even 0.00. Right now Utah (home of all those non-drinking Mormons) is trying to lead the US by cutting the limit to 0.05. And it’s facing plenty of resistance.

Soviet Bus Stops in Central Asia

18 September 2017 | Culture

I was a fan for Soviet Bus Stops – a wonderful photographic book by Christopher Herwig – years before I crossed the border from China into Kazakhstan and entered the Soviet bus stop heartland. You can read a CNN article about the Canadian photographer’s crazy mission ...

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Nancy Hatch Dupree & Afghanistan

15 September 2017 | Culture

The amazing Nancy Hatch Dupree died, aged 89, on September 10. There were fine obituaries for her in The Economist and The New York Times and many other places. I never met her, but I certainly knew her most famous book very well indeed: An Historical Guide to Afghani...

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Recent Exhibits – London & Melbourne, Pink Floyd to Hokusai

13 September 2017 | Culture

I’ve been hitting the galleries and museums in London and then in Melbourne the last few weeks. First of all at the Victoria & Albert Museum in Knightsbridge, London there was Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains. I was never a huge Pink Floyd fan and the only time...

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Signs in China

12 September 2017 | Culture

I’ve posted on the weird and wonderful signs you encounter in China on previous trips and I certainly saw plenty on my recent Silk Road journey. ▲ Sometimes the signs were potentially very useful, but never seemed to appear at the right time. On more than one occas...

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Ebao or E Bao or Ebuzhen, Qinghai Province in China

11 September 2017 | Places

It’s always interesting when your travels take you somewhere which doesn’t turn up on an internet search. In English at least, there’s probably lots to be said about Ebao (or E Bao or Ebuzhen) in Chinese. We stopped for lunch in Ebao on Day 47 of my recent Silk Roa...

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Pakistan-Bangladesh, Russia-Australia – observing, watching

8 September 2017 | Living

Yogi Berra, that famous source of folk wisdom (I think he played baseball as well), noted that ‘You can observe a lot by just watching.’ You certainly can, I felt that over and over again on my Silk Road trip from Bangkok to London earlier this year. None of the Centr...

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Epic Drives of the World

8 September 2017 | Media

I played a small part in Lonely Planet’s new Epic Drives of the World book, each chapter features a longer report on one ‘epic drive’ and three smaller features on related drives. ▲ The shattered tyre is a reminder of what can happen if you don’t take care of them ...

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VPNs, Website Blocks & ‘Climbing the Wall’

10 August 2017 | Media

Oh you’re ‘climbing the wall’ – fan qiang – the Chinese journalist commented. I was indeed, I was using a VPN – Virtual Private Network – to ‘climb over the Great Firewall of China.’ China is the most notorious of the countries in the world which spend a great deal...

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Electric Bromptons, Brompton Racing, noted Brompton Riders

8 August 2017 | Transport

I’m another enthusiast for those classic British folding bikes, the Brompton. I’ve clearly had mine for a long time, here’s a comparison between my Brompton and two other bikes in my small collection, from nine years ago. The other day I went for a ride on a new Br...

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500 Bicycles Rides in France

6 August 2017 | Media

And it’s in French! Lonely Planet France has just published a guide to 500 great bicycle rides in France. Rides suitable for people from 7 to 77 they claim, whether you want rides with friends or family, by yourself or with your lover – well it is French bicycle ridin...

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