With an official death rate of 180 per year, the N2 is perhaps the world’s most deadly highway. It was financed by the World Bank. Like most of their road projects, it was done with the purpose of speeding up motor vehicle traffic, without any regard to pedestrians or cyclists:
On the road with me is Greg Smith, an affable Australian who works as the regional director for the International Road Assessment Programme (iRAP), an organisation that star-rates and assesses roads around the world mile by mile. Bangladesh’s road accident record is bad, but it is by no means unique. Around 1.3 million people now die every year and 50 million are injured on the road, the vast majority in poor countries such as Bangladesh. Road accidents now kill more children than HIV and Aids, malaria and diarrhoea put together.
“Basically this road is like driving a 10-tonne truck through a pedestrian mall,” Smith says. “And nobody is doing enough to stop it.”
He points to the sides of the road: no crash barriers. In the middle of the road, there is no central reservation to prevent dangerous overtaking and stop the majority of the head-on collisions. No pedestrian footpaths, no footbridges, no traffic lights or speed controls.
“They built this road with absolutely no basic safety features,” he says. “As an engineer I look at this road and all I see is a systematic failure. And this is a World Bank road. You would never ever build a road like this in a developed country.
Deaths and injuries do not factor into World Bank cost-effectiveness calculations:
At the World Bank no one wants to be linked to the N2. When I ask how they can account for an almost 50% rise in accidents since the 2005 renovation I’m told the N2 is an “old project”, that they have suspended all road building in Bangladesh because of corruption, and that a rise in accidents post-renovation is “to be expected” when there is more traffic on the roads. They say road safety is one of the Bank’s biggest priorities. And, ultimately, all the Bank did was give the loan. It’s up to the government to do the rest. It is “their” road.
“We want to see economic growth and greater access to markets associated with renovating a road,” says Ellen Goldstein, country director for the World Bank in Bangladesh. “We clearly don’t want to see hospital beds filling up. But there is definitely a financial trade-off to be made by every developing country not just with road safety but with other development issues. The ability to get to Sylhet in five or six hours is unbelievable compared to what it once was. So when you look at the huge economic benefit this brings then, of course, you will have a cost, which is the potential for fatalities and injury.”