Coffins on Wheels: Urgent Call for Safety Reforms on the Karakoram Highway

By Ali Muhammd

A famous saying suggests, “Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.” However, for those journeying from mainland Pakistan to Gilgit Baltistan, the road, though leading to breathtaking destinations, is treacherous. Each milestone passed feels perilously close to the brink of disaster, and the buses ferrying these travellers are, in reality, ‘Coffins on Wheels’, and given the dire state of infrastructure along the Karakoram Highway (KKH), accidents are sadly inevitable.

In the early hours, around 0500 on 3rd May 2024, tragedy struck again. An unfortunate bus, operated by a private company, met its fate roughly 20 kilometres upstream of Chilas City, near ‘Yashkul Das’ in the Gonar Farm area. Reportedly, 23 individuals have lost their lives, while another 18 are injured, many of them in critical condition. This incident again underscores the urgent need for improved safety measures along this perilous route.

Ali Muhammad

The unending tale of such accidents on the Karakoram Highway (KKH) has a long history, but in the last five years since 2019, the frequency as well as the scale of loss of precious lives have surged. Reflecting on recent tragedies, in September 2019, a privately-owned bus en route from Skardu to Rawalpindi experienced brake failure, leading to a grave accident near the Gittidas area of Babusar Pass on N-15. This tragedy claimed the lives of 30 individuals and left 15 others injured. Similarly, last year, in February 2023, another privately-owned bus travelling from Ghizer to Rawalpindi was involved in a tragic collision with a passing vehicle near Shatiyal on N-35 in Kohistan. The collision, exacerbated by reckless driving and poor road conditions, caused the bus to plunge into a deep ravine, resulting in the loss of 20 lives and injuring 10 others amidst the darkness of night. Subsequently, in July 2023, a mini-bus transporting tourists veered off the road near Thalichi, resulting in the loss of 7 lives and injuring a total of 9 individuals.

These distressing trends highlight several factors the provincial government and private transport companies are overlooking. It can be assumed that road and automotive technology improvements, coupled with the government’s strict policies, would reduce such tragedies. However, the inability of government bodies to efficiently oversee and control road infrastructure and public transport through integrating modern practices, combined with the careless conduct of transport companies, has led to ongoing fatalities. In total, over 80 individuals have perished in these four significant incidents in a short span of five years.

Two of the aforementioned accidents, occurring in September 2019 and February 2023, were meticulously investigated by a research organisation known as Automotive Design and Crashworthiness Research (ADCR), which subsequently published the findings of both incidents. Similar patterns emerged, highlighting the lack of roadworthiness in locally produced buses (without undergoing any quality checks), the recklessness of drivers, and mismanagement by transport companies as the primary causes of these accidents. While it is premature to draw conclusions about the causes or reasons behind the current Yashkul Das accident, it is likely to exhibit similar patterns to the previous incidents. These recurring patterns are not mere coincidences; instead, they reflect the negligence of government and transport companies towards crucial aspects of road safety for both passengers and vehicles.

According to a video testimony from one of the surviving bus crew members, shared online by several media sources, he mentioned hearing an explosion-like sound originating from the rear tyres. This suggests that a tyre explosion might have been the primary factor contributing to the driver’s loss of control over the bus. Consequently, it indicates that the bus either sustained significant wheel damage during the journey or was already equipped with worn-out tyres. This situation raises profound concerns regarding the overall roadworthiness of the vehicle, as well as others of its kind.

Another critical point is that the bus was travelling on a newly paved section of the Karakoram Highway (KKH). Such freshly laid sections are prone to high-speed accidents, and when vehicles travel at high speeds, a tyre burst can lead to drivers losing control of their vehicles. This reckless behaviour by drivers is unfortunately common due to the absence of mechanisms to monitor and restrict overspeeding on the KKH. Despite numerous recommendations, the government has yet to deploy the National Highway & Motorway Police (NH&MP), who have proven effective in managing other highways and motorways across Pakistan. Moreover, there is a psychological aspect to these dangerous driving behaviours. Many buses that ply between Gilgit Baltistan and mainland Pakistan have departure and arrival times that clash with human natural sleep patterns—journeying during late-night hours and prolonged stretches of driving lead to extreme fatigue, impairing the driving skills of onboard drivers (usually two drivers). Additionally, accidents occurring during these late-night hours hinder timely communication and dispatch of emergency units, resulting in ineffective response and leaving many injured passengers unattended, ultimately leading to loss of life.

Finally, the present precarious state of the road, particularly in areas like Bhasha and Dassu, where the government has wholly neglected certain sections because of the construction of hydropower projects, adds unnecessary strain on vehicles’ mechanical systems. This strain eventually causes significant wear and tear, contributing to such accidents.

The government must take decisive action to ensure the safety of commuters on the Karakoram Highway (KKH). Firstly, immediate deployment of the National Highways & Motorway Police (NH&MP) is essential. A comprehensive framework should be established to enforce road safety regulations for all passenger vehicles. Regular vehicle fitness checks, conducted every three months, are imperative. Moreover, facilities should be set up at toll booths to inspect essential vehicle systems daily, akin to practices in European countries where heavy transport vehicles undergo daily inspections before traversing mountainous terrain. Secondly, the government must regulate bus schedules to maximize daytime travel, facilitating prompt emergency response to accidents. Lastly, both federal and provincial authorities must expedite road infrastructure improvements. This includes paving off-road sections with new asphalt and installing surveillance cameras along the entire length of the KKH. These measures will bolster security, enhance communication, and provide real-time visuals for efficient emergency response. Failure to heed these recommendations risks further tragedies and erodes public trust in state institutions among the people of Gilgit Baltistan.

Mr. Ali Muhammad is a young academic and policy researcher who is an alumnus of the prestigious Department of International Relations at the National Defence University, Pakistan. His scholarly endeavours are mostly in Non-Traditional Security Studies, where he has expertise in International Politics of Climate Change, Environmental Politics, and Ethnic Conflicts. His expertise also extends to Educational Science, Policy, and Development, enriching scholarly discourse with empirical rigour and analytical depth.He Tweest at X @alyhnz1140

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